How to veganize Sam Harris

For those who don’t know him, Sam Harris is an author on philosophy, religion & atheism, rationality and a lot of other topics, and has quite a large following. In his latest podcast, Sam Harris talks with psychologist Paul Bloom about “the dark side” of human nature. One of the topics under scrutiny this time is vegetarianism/veganism.

I have written before about Sam Harris’ dietary choices and his at the time not very convincing arguments for not being vegan. I don’t require people to be vegan, but in his case, as someone really adamant about following rational argument to wherever it leads, I couldn’t help pointing out some inconsistencies.

Listening to this recent podcast (from min. 1.14 to the end), I was impressed and moved by Harris’ statements and philosophizing on our behaviour towards and thinking about animals, however. Harris wants to take the idea of going vegan seriously. I’ll go over some of the ideas exchanged between Harris and Bloom below, before drawing some conclusions.

Harris and Bloom both both agree that future generations will see us the way we see slaveholders today and that they will consider our present treatment of animals as monstrous. They both agree about their own complicity “in the horrific suffering of many many creatures”, and that they “are participating in a system that is on some basic level indefensible.” Bloom: “We can ask ourselves what it’s like to knowingly do evil. And this is what it feels like”. Bloom doesn’t want to call it hypocrisy but rather weakness of will.

While Bloom seems to be willing to defend “humane” meat, saying the suffering is the problem rather than the killing, and that the world would already be a much better place if we only produced humane” meat, Harris doesn’t want to buy into that so easily. He says:

“I know that I’m not going to kill a cow to get my next hamburger… and the fact that I participate in a system that does this knowingly more or less condemns me as a hypocrite. (…) I know I wouldn’t kill them myself, and I wouldn’t like myself if I became so callous as to be ok with doing it. I don’t want to be that person.(…) My first ethical concern is: if you know that you would find it ethically repugnant to kill animals, day after day so as to secure your protein (…), if you much rather pet a cow than kill it (…), if you know you are that kind of person and you wouldn’t want to be any other kind of person, doesn’t it seem just transparantly unethical to be willing to delegate that process to others and just keep it out of sight, out of mind and just go on eating meat however raised?

sam harris

Bloom believes that if Harris thinks this way, if he finds it morally repellent to kill animals, then yes, he shouldn’t delegate it.

Harris seems to be entirely aware of both the suffering going on and of the inconsistency between his beliefs and his actions. He names two factors that keep him from being vegan: “(1) the pleasure to which I think I’m marginally attached (…) and (2) the feeling that we don’t understand human health and nutrition enough… ” Harris doesn’t want “to have what I eat and what I feed my kids such a life consuming project. It’s just easier to eat meat and fish sometimes.” He admits, however that “that laziness, given the magnitude of the suffering we are imposing on animals, is a horrible thing about me. That laziness is not justifiable if you actually look closely at the details.”

Both Harris and Bloom agree that it would be a lot easier if some things were imposed from the top down. Bloom compares it to the following: he isn’t really prepared to give away a big part of his income, but is in favor of taxes taking a share. Harris, in this respect, talks about “getting up each day and having to rely on your own heroism and commitment and some sort of discipline.” Still, he acknowledges that “we obviously can’t keep killing and emiserating animals with a clear conscience until some benevolent despot passes that law for us. We can’t abdicate personal responsibility here.”

I think we can draw several lessons or conclusions from this dialogue:

  1. People who are committed to rational thinking can come to the conclusion that eating animals (at the very least factory farmed animals) is wrong.
  2. They won’t necessarily put that belief into practice.
  3. Some of the ways to bridge the gap between attitude and behaviour (at least in this case) are 1. showing the nutritional adequacy of vegan diets (preferably in a rational way and without exaggeration) and 2. as a movement, by stimulating the development of alternatives.
  4. What’s also clear is that Harris seems to think that it is all much more complicated than it really is. Most people who have been vegan for a mere couple of months will realize that it doesn’t require much “discipline” or “heroism”, even though getting there might be less easy or obvious.
  5. We can see that they haven’t done much thinking (especially Bloom) and are probably quite misguided about “humane meat”. I am definitely not saying that there are no differences between different ways of raising animals, but as far as we can see, “humanely” raised meat (if we would agree that it exists at all) is very hard to come by, would be very expensive and its production is not generalisable. What Bloom has in mind when he talks about “humane” meat is probably a far cry from an actual improvement.

I leave the word to Harris before drawing conclusion number six:

“We are two people [Harris and Bloom – VS] who have admitted to participating in a system that is not only in some sense objectively bad but perhaps so bad as to be the kind of thing that would be on the short list as to be an embarassment to our descendants. (…) We’re both conceding that the way we raise and treat and consume anmials is probably a moral scandal (…) analogous to slavery and yet we are to some degree participating in it and not really signalling much of a willingness to change. I’m gonna signal my own willingness to change. I’m appealing to my listeners to send me some streamlined info on how to idiotproof this process.”

So here’s conclusion number six: sometimes change is a slow process (I know it was for me) but, even though Sam Harris hasn’t reached the vegan “nec plus ultra” yet, change seems to be possible for everyone. It would be good not to write off anyone on the basis that they are not vegan yet, and encourage them, especially when they are showing intellectual honesty, and are mustering the courage to honestly examine their belief and draw honest conclusions. Sam Harris wants to really investigate what he can do. I applaud him for that and wish him good luck. I’m sure he’ll soon be a formidable ally to the movement for compassion for animals.

Making vegan look nice and easy

Yesterday I was at a vegan potluck with about fifteen people. Just in case you don’t know: a potluck is a meal where every guests brings their own dish, prepared at home. Now, the exceptional thing about this one potluck was that none of the guests (except for me and my girlfriend) were vegan and hardly even knew what vegan was. From the host, who wanted to give them a challenge, they got the assignment to bring a vegan dish, described as a dish without animal products. Nothing more.

From a vegan activist point of view, I thought this was a really interesting experiment: to have non-vegans prepare vegan dishes kind of forces them to look into it a bit deeper and hopefully gives them a “can do” attitude about it. Of course there’s a risk too: not only might they experience a sense of failure, but also dishes made by unexperienced people might not be tasty and be a turn off. Fortunately, that didn’t seem to be the case here.

When you attend as a vegan, a potluck where every dish is prepared by non-vegans is of course a bit of a tricky situation, because you’re not sure if the others have fully understood the concept. Now, I have repeatedly written (and I’ve been criticized, even attacked for it) that it’s good if we don’t act like food safety inspectors when we’re around other people who still need to be warmed up to veganism.


I prefer not to have anything non vegan in my mouth (even though the worst that can happen is a little disgust), but I think it’s more important to give people a good impression of vegans and veganism. I’m sure some other vegans would have done more due diligence work than I have, and be more selective in what they put on their plate. I did not. I was still a bit careful when sampling, but basically I went with the flow, and trusted what the other people had made.

It was not, I have to repeat, that I didn’t want to make people feel bad by questioning them or refusing their dish. It’s that I want to make veganism and vegans look good. And accessible. And doable. Let me illustrate what I mean with an example that I heard that very evening. Across me was a guy who said he hardly ate any meat. He appeared to really dig vegetarianism, but about veganism, he said that from having vegan friends, he knew how difficult it all was, as he saw them constantly check labels, inquire about everything etc… so he felt veganism was too difficult and he couldn’t do it himself.

Going vegan (not being vegan) can be difficult enough as it is, and we should do our best by not making it seem more difficult. Make being vegan look like the joy that it is. Of course I’m talking about social situations. I always  check my labels when I do grocery shopping. But when there are other people around, especially people who made food for you, it’s different. Even if you don’t mind being inquisitive, even if you manage to ask questions in a very polite and friendly way, and even if you think you are “educating others” about veganism that way, I’m pretty sure other people will see all this as a very undesireable aspect of being vegan.

What about GMOs and hi-tech animal food alternatives?

We’re living in very exciting times.

We’re on the verge of making milk without the cow,
cheese without the milk,
eggs without the chickens,
burgers without the beef,
leather without the bull…

In a lot of cases we’re not talking about imitations but about actually replicating, molecule by molecule, the original product (eggs, milk, cheese, meat…), so that our “alternative” can hardly be called an alternative any longer, but is a product that is chemically (more or less) identical to the original animal product.

hi tech animal products (1)

Obviously, doing stuff like this requires new technologies (like genetic modification) and hi-tech food development environments (labs, say). This is of course a far cry from the local, natural, organic, DIY food movement that is presently quite popular.

The vegan movement too is a bit divided over this. A big part believes our food should be as “natural” as possible, while another part doesn’t mind the involvement of high tech, including GMO’s, to make things better.

To me it’s quite obvious that the label “natural” doesn’t mean much. To simplify things – as is often done in the food movement in general – to something like: natural is good, processed/engineered is bad, seems quite irrational. I find there is little reason to entertain the general idea that what has been produced by nature is necessarily better than what humans make of it. There seems to be no reason why humans, in theory, could not do better than nature. Sure, when we try to improve on what nature provided us with, we need to experiment, sometimes by trial and error, and we have made mistakes and will make more. But that doesn’t mean we can’t ever get it right.

I’m aware of the potential political and social problems in giving food companies too much power, the problem of monopolies, of only big companies being able to develop certain technologies, of patenting, etcetera… But while these issues are very important, they are practical issues that are not inherent to the “naturalness” or “unnaturalness” of foods. It seems sensible, especially in the case of GMO’s, to separate two questions: do you have fundamental problems with something, versus do you have practical problems with something. If you fundamentally disagree with something (e.g. you believe that genetic modification is “unnatural” and therefore “wrong”) there’s no real solution for you in sight. If you disagree with e.g. genetic modification on the grounds that it creates too much power for certain (obviously capitalist) multinationals, that’s a practical issue of a totally different nature.

While we shouldn’t be naive, these practical issues can in theory be solved. A nice example of a high tech initiative that seems to be doing things differently is Real Vegan Cheese, which is a group of “biohackers” (a word which does a great job in showing the “unnaturalness” of their endeavours) trying to develop… well, real vegan cheese. They are crowdfunded and work out of two open community labs in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Personally, while I can see many potential or real practical issues with hi-tech food development, I don’t have any fundamental objections against hi-tech food. I basically support science and technology in reinventing animal products and coming up with alternatives, so that we can make of animal use a thing of the past.

What the meat industry can do against the animal rights movement

At we were able to get our hands on a confidential document, coming from somewhere high up the International Animal Food Producers Union (IAFPU). What we have is an interview with a Mr Ham Burger. Mr Burger appears to be a strategist within the meat industry. In this classified interview, Mr Burger is asked for his favorite strategies to undermine the growing animal rights movement. Let’s read and learn… **


Interviewer: In the USA and Europe, meat consumption is declining, and that is at least in part due to the work of animal rights and vegan activists. It has come to our attention that you have been tasked to develop a strategic plan to structurally undermine this movement, both from within and without. Is that correct?

Ham Burger: Oh yes. We can no longer afford to let things run their course and we are now in attack modus. We’ve had some moderate successes in the US with the ag-gag laws, but we’re not sure if they’ll hold up and there’s a lot of resistance against them. So we are looking into many other options.

Interviewer: Can you talk about some of those options?

Ham Burger: Sure thing. First of all, we made a map of the movement. Our enemies, as it were. We’ve looked at the connections between them, and singled out the main players.

animal activist map
The big organisations like HSUS, Peta, Mercy for Animals, Farm Sanctuary, and in Europe, Animal Equality and Proveg International are the most dangerous and hence are the most important to tackle. We need to hit these groups where it hurts: in their funding, which comes from individual citizens. Our plan of attack for these organisations is twofold. Among the general population, we want to spread the message that these groups are incredibly radical, dreaming of a world that none of us, normal citizens, want (a world without meat and dairy!?). Internally, within the movement itself, we will focus on the opposite. We will say that these groups are not that radical at all. We’ll say that they are actually in bed with us, the meat industry, and that these groups’ goal is not a vegan world, or at least, that they are extremely ineffective. We might also play the moral card, saying that what they do is actually immoral from an animal rights point of view.

Interviewer: Something like this?

Ham Burger: Hey, this is awesome! Anyway, where was I? Oh yes, ineffective and immoral, right. You know, what’s really damaging to us is these groups’ lobbying for animal welfare legislation. Legislation regarding animal welfare makes everything so much more difficult for us, and in the end will make animal products a lot more expensive, which will inevitably cause demand to slow down further. Fortunately, it doesn’t seem too difficult to make the movement believe that this lobbying for welfarist regulations is really problematic.

Interviewer: Some people call them steps in a backward direction…
baby steps

Ham Burger: Right, see, they already believe this. So, another thing I would try to convince the animal rights movement of, is to communicate as radical and absolutist as possible. I don’t have to tell you that our industry is not afraid of that little fringe part of the movement that wants everything right here, right now and sees things very much in black and white. What’s dangerous is when the movement starts to be reasonable and patient. What’s dangerous is when they start telling the public that they can go step by step. It’s just basic psychology that a much bigger number of people will want to start taking steps when they’re being asked to do something that seems actually feasible. So, anyway, it would be great if the animal rights movement would be as black and white as possible, ideally telling everyone to go vegan, and that everything else, everything short of vegan, is pretty much worthless.

Interviewer: I found this on the web. Is it yours?


Ham Burger: Ah, interesting. Well, no… but it could have been. Who’s this from?

Interviewer: Some guy. So, considering what you just said, I assume you think that the Meatless Monday campaign is really problematic?

Ham Burger: Oh yes, that [expletive crossed out] is just a disaster for our industry. That single [expletive crossed out] campaign creates so many meat reducers, that all together they could really tip the system. All these ah… we call them reducetarians… all these people are together the main cause for the decline in sales and consumption of meat. It’s hard to discredit the campain for a general public, but within the movement we have some ideas.

Interviewer: Maybe like this?

Ham Burger
: Yes. We’ve’ll emphasize that Meatless Mondays are not necessarily vegan, and of course this campaign is by definition incremental, so it should be possible to convince part of the movement not to support this and actively speak out against it. Can you send me a copy of this?

Interviewer: Sure thing. What else do you think is important to focus on from the industry side?

Ham Burger: I must say, every time a celebrity has some kind of vegan stint, we’re terrified, to be honest. They get such huge attention for that, it’s incredible. Have you seen what happened when Clinton or Beyonce jump on this vegan thing? Of course you’ve seen it, because it was in the news all over the world. It’s just terrible. Again, I’m not sure how to discredit that with the general population, but within the animal rights movement I think our approach should be to point out their hypocrisy – most of these celebrities are not perfect vegans, or full time vegans, so it’s not difficult to show that. That way, we hope to get part of the movement to attack the celebrities through social media and thus alienate them from the vegetarian movement. Maybe then they will shut up about their eating habits, or, ideally turn back to meat, you know. And then with people like Ricky Gervais, who care about lions and giraffes, but are not yet talking about meat, we have to make sure they stay that way. Maybe if the animal rights movement gives him enough flack he’d get really disgusted with them. That’s the hope, at least.

Interviewer: Something like this meme?


Ham Burger: Yes, spot on!

Interviewer: What is extremely damaging for the industry, it seems to me, are all those undercover investigations, and especially the media attention they are getting. You talked about ag-gag laws, but do you have other plans?

Ham Burger: Ag-gag laws have been partially successful, but we’re also looking to undermine the support for these investigations within the animal rights movement. We are thinking of maybe planting the argument that these investigations are unethical, as the activists have to actually participate in the things they are against, you know. Or at the very least, they have to watch without doing anything. Both facts seem to run against the animal rights philosophy, if you ask me. On top of that, by now, these organisations must have so much material already that we could argue that, given that these investigations are unethical, they are also redundant. Also, we could point out that maybe publishing this undercover footage doesn’t really contribute to the abolition of meat, but rather to improving welfare.

Interviewer: Right. I can see that.

Ham Burger: Now, I kept the most important thing for last. The animal rights movement – or animal liberation movement or whatever… they are constantly arguing amongst themselves about which groups should call themselves what, but we honestly don’t care. Animal rights, liberation, protection… to us it’s all the same, but they seem obsessed with the terminology somehow. Anyway, I digress. This movement is mainly focused on moral arguments. They try to make people see that it’s wrong to kill and eat animals, or that the conditions in which the animals are raised are wrong, etcetera. Now, we don’t believe they can ever win this fight based on morality alone. However, what is very dangerous to us is the rise of all these new alternatives, especially the products the new Silicon Valley startups have come up with…

Interviewer: You mean companies like Just, Beyond Meat, Impossible foods…? What are you doing against them?

Ham Burger: Exactly, all those guys. The moment they manage to develop true alternatives for any of our animal products, which are not more expensive, just as tasty, not derived from animals, and maybe even healthier and – I hate to say it – more sustainable… that will be when the [expletive deleted] really hits the fan. So, in terms of what we’ve been doing… Not that much for now. This is something our task force (myself and my colleagues, Mr Nugget and Ms Chop) are giving a lot of attention presently. We’ve had some failures, like the Unilever suit against Just, and some very small successes, like the smear campaign against Daiya Foods [who got a lot of flack for using non vegan dishes in its advertising – ed. ], and a very critical article on Just in a magazine, where a journalist was able to dig up some dirt about them through ex-employees. But like I said, we’re looking into this and much more needs to be done.

Interviewer: Do you think the movement itself could be enlisted in some resistance against these products or companies?

Ham Burger: Yes, I think there are possibilities. We may try to influence opinions in terms of these products not being natural, for instance. In the case of cell-based meat, many vegetarians are already against it, saying it’s still meat and still encourages the idea that meat is necessary, etcetera. So I think we’ve got some stuff to go on, yes. Also, our research seems to point out that in a very general sense, a big part of the movement wants the revolution to happen for moral reasons, and preferably for moral reasons alone. So they’re not really that enthusiastic about people switching because alternatives are cheaper, healthier or tastier…

Interviewer: Thanks for this interview, Mr Burger. I hope to touch base with you at a later stage, when some of these ideas have been firmed up.

Ham Burger: Thanks. Definitely.

** Just to make sure: this is *satire* 🙂

References: except for the first, all pictures, including the text on undercover investigations, have been published on this Facebook Page.

Suppose there was a vegan island. Would you go live there?

Suppose there was a vegan island, somewhere in the Pacific Ocean, quite far off any coast. Living on the island is comfortable. There’s an abundance of vegan foods and the entire population is vegan. There’s natural beauty, and you’re never at a loss for things to do. Your life would be completely fulfilled. There would never be anyone near you eating chicken nuggets or saying that animals just exist for us to use. No one would ever ask you where you get your protein or tell you that plants feel pain too.

vegan island
Imagine there are no practical considerations to take into account (there are jobs on this island, your loved one(s) want to join you, etc), would you pack your suitcase and go move there?

Here’s the catch I want to talk about: living in this vegan paradise, you would have few opportunities to have any positive influence on the non-vegan world (we could, for the sake of the argument, assume that there is no way to reach the rest of the world through the web, for instance). So you’d feel great (hopefully) with all this vegan company and all the vegan amenities, but you would be leaving the rest of our planet to its own non-vegan devices.

There are different kinds of vegans (and different kinds of people in any “alternative” movement). One of the divides is the one between those vegans whose priority it is to have a comfortable life in the midst of other vegans, and those whose prioritze to veganize the rest of the world. This is not a judgment, but more an observation.

So here is my point: the desire that people have for other vegans who are just as strict as they are, who are 100% on board, and on board for the right reasons, probably emerges in part from a desire to share one’s ideology, dreams, and feelings… In a world where most people are, consciously or subconsciously, cruel towards animals, it is only natural that we want to find kindred souls. This is also part of the explanation why we are disappointed when other people who we thought were on our side, turn out not to share exactly our views or behavior.
While I understand this need and desire to find people who are of like mind, and the disappointment that comes with people who almost are, I personally think that living in the real world and helping people to feel compassion for animals and eat vegan, is a lot more important.

You can apply the island-concept to many things: vegan restaurants are rather “islandish”: they are safe places where you’ll never eat anything wrong. But going to a non vegan restaurant can push the restaurant and its chef in the direction of providing more vegan options. Vegans-only Facebook groups are islands. It’s good that they exist, we can discuss our views safely without annoying questions, bullying or ridicule from others, but we’re not going to influence other people with it.

Of course, it’s quite possible to move between our island and the mainland. We can, for instance, live on the non vegan mainland most of the time, and go to our vegan island when we need a break or want to vent.

Also, it might be useful to recognize that some of us are more suited to live on the island than on the mainland. While there are people who are really good at reaching out to non-vegans, others simply may not have the patience for it. Not to worry in that case: there’s great work to be done on the island to. Catering to and caring for other vegans’ needs and desires is probably an important aspect of making veganism more sustainable – something that is much needed, given that only one in five vegetarians (not even vegans) sticks to it!

Can abolitionists and pragmatists ever trust each other?

I get a quite a bit of criticism from some people for my blogposts and videos. I’m being told that I’m telling people not to be vegan and that hence I’m an anti-vegan. I’m being told I’m not vegan myself because I’m not picky about wine, because I would eat a steak for 100.000 dollars (which I can use for animals), or because I would make small exceptions if I thought it was better for people’s idea of vegans and veganism, and therefore for the animals.


It seems that abolitionists in particular have a hard time with what I write. I should actually put the word abolitionist in quotation marks, because all of us in the animal liberation/vegan movement are abolitionists, at least in terms of objectives. In terms of strategy, we differ: my tactics and communication are often not abolitionist, but rather pragmatic and incremental.

I realize there is a chasm between abolitionists and pragmatists, if I can put it that way (I use the word pragmatist rather than “welfarist”, which is the usual opposite of abolitionist, but which is a complete misnomer). And I have been thinking about that chasm, and what could be at the basis of it. Because the animosity and downright hostility that these two groups feel for each other, at times defies explanation.

One would think that we could agree to disagree on strategy, and that at least we wouldn’t second guess each other’s intentions. Yet that’s exactly what happens. What’s at the core of the hostility seems to be a lack of trust. Abolitionists don’t seem to trust that pragmatists really, really want an end to animal (ab)use, that they really really want a vegan world. Conversely, I think some pragmatists may have similar doubts about abolitionists, believing some might be more interested in a vegan club than a vegan world.

Somehow, we need to find that trust; the trust in each other’s good intentions and in each other’s love and respect for animals. If we then differ about what strategy is efficient, or even think that the other’s strategy will not lead us to where we want to be, things won’t get so out of hand.

Like I said, I’m a pragmatist. I don’t tell people that veganism is the moral baseline or that they should go vegan, but suggest that they take whatever steps in that direction that they are comfortable with. I suggest we are patient. I suggest people don’t spend too much time worrying about what’s in bread or wine or fruit juice, and over doing the impossible. I suggest that every step is good. I never say meat is murder, I don’t accuse people of being immoral, selfish or hypocritical if they are not vegan, as we won’t really endear people to our cause this way. I also suggest that we need to work together with other organisations, sectors, companies, governments and that we need to be practical and pragmatic in this. I believe that a big mass of meat reducers is a faster way to arrive at a vegan society than slowly increasing the number of vegans (though I think both should be done). I also believe that people can evolve from health concerns to animal concerns, so I talk about what I think interests them.

Basically, I want to make it easier to eat vegan, and I believe that convenience is the basis ofwhich we can build our critical mass. All of that doesn’t mean I don’t believe the world should be vegan. I believe in that as much as the people who unequivocally say that vegan is the moral baseline believe it. I also believe it’s realistic to get there. I do believe that not just the suffering of animals is wrong, but also taking their lives.

I think saying that we need all approaches is way too easy, and I believe some are better than others. I follow the one I think is best, and I hope you do the same (the one you think is best, that is). But I believe that an in-your-face, veganism-is-the-moral-baseline-approach can coexist with a pragmatic, incremental approach.

What I also believe is that it will be a lot harder to be successful if we don’t trust each other.

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.


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. 

Money money money in our movement

Organisations – especially the bigger ones – often get a lot of criticism from grassroots groups and individual activists, for all kinds of things. One of the accusations these organisations get thrown at them is that they are all about money/fundraising/donations. Organisations are being called corporations or businesses. Francione, for instance, lately seems to make it a sport to point out “big red donate buttons” on all the major organisations’ websites.

big is wonderful
Let me be clear. I believe that organisations should be as transparant as possible about where they get their money and how they spend it. From strategically stupid choices and bad management, to extravagant wages for certain functions or even downright corruption: these are risks in any movement, also in ours. Apart from intentional misconduct, sometimes organisations may become less dynamic after a while and just raise funds to keep existing and keep people on board. Organisations should constantly be aware of this risk, and can use their members and donors. to help them watch out for them.

Corruption and abuse of funds should be called out. Fundraising, however, obviously should not. There is no shame in looking for donations or fundraising. There is no shame in big budgets. There is no shame in being big. On the contrary: if small is beautiful, then in our movement, big is wonderful. 

In most organisations, the biggest part of their bugdet goes to staff costs (salaries). This is normal too. Yes, you can run volunteer-only organisations. But they usually won’t get as big or as impactful as organisations with paid staff (I’m sure some people will try to come up with counterexamples. Bring them on.)

Many people can invest volunteer hours, but once you need full time staff on the job, you pay them a wage. It’s simple. Often an organisation will need to find people with professional backgrounds and expertise. The battle against the ag-gag laws in the US, I assume, cannot be won with volunteers only.

Another criticism (again by our friend Francione) is that organisations will often choose (single issue) campaigns in order to raise funds. Apart from the fact that I’m sure these targets are chosen for other reasons (like strategic ones, or just to alleviate suffering), I think there’s nothing bad with choosing a target or campaign because we know it will raise some funds. If we can raise a lot of money on an antifur campaign (say), that can often provide money or other opportunities to also work on other topics.

What’s the insinuation here anyway? That organisations and their staff are interested in money for money’s sake only? That the people in organisations want big wages, or want to expand their organisations for their own ego? Give me a break. The industry of animal (ab)use has billions of dollars at its disposal. So I hope we’re not going to whine about the few hundred million that our movement has in total? 

It’s strange how suspicious people are of money when the context is the nonprofit sector. It seems that the world is allowed to make a lot of money selling laundry detergents or video games, making movies, but not by doing good. It’s an absurd idea, and it’s very much a pity, actually, that the hardest way of actually making a living is by doing good. Many people want to work the entire time for animals or some other good cause, but they can’t, because there are not enough paid jobs available and they have to make a living somehow. The more of these paid jobs there are, the better.

To those saying we can’t change things with money, I’d say: indeed. But we can change things with committed people able to give 100% of their time to the cause. We can change things with TV-commercials. We can change things through lobbying. We can change things by handing out hundreds of thousands of booklets. We can change things with undercover investigations… And for all these things, we need… money.

Fundraisers, do your work! Money is something in our movement that we should get as much of as possible, and do great things with. Let no one tell you any different.

Our movement’s newest asset: big money

“We have science, logic and morality on our side. It’s only a matter of time before we win.” 

The above quote is by Bruce Friedrich, long time and much appreciated activist, now working at Farm Sanctuary. I share Bruce’s belief that someday, we will win. I share his belief in the power of science, logic and morality. But I’m happy to see that lately, we’ve seen another factor at our side: money.

Not that the vegan movement didn’t have any money at all before, but today it’s kind of a whole new ballgame. For the first time, big money is being bet on vegan products. Companies like Hampton Creek, Beyond Beef and Impossible foods have raised literally hundreds of millions of dollars in venture capital. Check out some others here.

For the first time, investors can see a big future for meat, dairy and egg alternatives. Given that the production of animal products will become more and more problematic on environmental grounds, and more and more unacceptable to people on ethical grounds, people like Bill Gates and Twitter’s Biz Stone have been opening their wallets. Google’s Sergey Brinn has invested in the research for in vitro meat by Mark Post in the Netherlands, and Google has recently made an offer to buy Impossible Foods.

The perception value of investors like these betting on meat alternatives is important: these guys are not stupid. If they see something in meat substitutes… well, it must mean there might really be something in it.

But other than mere symbolic or perception value, the millions of dollars these venture capitalists are making available, allow entrepreneurs to put together dream teams and acquire the best researchers, tech people and marketeers to develop and then market their new products.

developing alternatives

If you read some of the media coverage these new ventures are getting, you can see that the entrepreneurs are looking to imitate (and improve) meat (or other animal products) like never before. They want to make a product that is at least indistinguishable from the original animal product, but hopefully even better. And now they have the money, the brains, the technology to do so. Read about Impossible Foods, Beyond Meat, Hampton Creek (egg substitutes) or Muufri (real milk, but not from animals). It’s fascinating stuff.

I think the importance of developing good alternatives for animal products cannot be overestimated. Meat still has a symbolic value (especially in emerging ecomomies), but as far as people choose to eat meat for culinary reasons, almost no one, I am sure, insists on putting pieces of a dead animal in their mouth. Rather, people are looking for a certain taste and texture. If you can imitate that taste and texture exactly (or improve upon it), and make the products healthier, more sustainable and cruelty free while you’re at it… there is no reason why we couldn’t get every omnivore to eat these “alternatives” rather than the “animal originals”.

There is no doubt that all of these developments happen within the classical capitalist framework, which is probably not the ideal solution. However, to call all of this nothing more than “vegan consumerism” which has nothing to do with ethics, is misguided. Making our society less dependent on the use of animals by developping alternatives (in food, research, clothing) is high priority. It is crucial for people to have good alternatives if we want them to be able to let their compassion flow.