There’s nothing wrong about being a “vegan apologist”

You may have heard the term “apologist vegan” or “vegan apologist”. Maybe you’ve even been called that. But what is it, exactly?

I googled around a bit in search of descriptions of definitions, and the gist of it seems that a vegan apologist is a vegan who caters too much about how non-vegans feel, and who is able to apologize their non-vegan behavior, by coming up with reasons non-apologist vegans (I’ll call them “hardliners” in this post) do not find convincing. Another telltale sign of being an apologist, apparently, is to apologize for the behavior of some other vegans to meat eaters. For instance, an apologist vegan would explain that some vegans are really too militant or intolerant. This, again, is a no go for hardliners. In the eyes of the hardliners, there is no excuse for animal abuse, no excuse for not going vegan right now, no excuse for any exception. No excuse for excuses. The hardliners believe, I think, that it is only they who unconditionally take the side of the animals, and that apologists tolerate behavior of others that should not be tolerated.

As a vegan, should you always reject and refute the reasons other people give for not being (entirely) vegan?  I think not.

I think “making apologies” – the thing so frowned upon by hardliners – is often a good thing. There are two reasons for that, one is about process, one is about content.

The process reason for taking seriously other people’s reasons for not being vegan, understanding them, sometimes accepting them, is that an attitude where you understand where people are coming from and are not demanding something they seem to think is impossible, is much more likely to get them to be open and listen to you. Hardline vegans seem to think that apologist vegans care all too much about not hurting other people’s feelings. I understand that sentiment, and I think that sometimes we go too far in the direction of not trying to offend. But that’s not (only) what this is about. This is also about effectiveness. If you tell a person they have to do something, that there is no excuse for them not to change, that all their reasons are bullshit… well, in many or most cases you’ll just alienate that person.

The content reason for being an apologist vegan, so to speak, is that people may have (at the very least in their own perception) valid reasons not to be vegan (and certainly, not entirely vegan). To understand some of the arguments the “apologist vegans” use to excuse non-vegans, take a look at the bingo meme below. For a selection of these “apologist arguments”, I did the following: between brackets I made the objection a little bit clearer, where necessary (just in case the few words on the card are not clear enough to you). Then I briefly wrote out what I call the “hardline vegan argument” (HVA). This is what I think the maker of the bingo card (obviously a non-apologist) had in mind. Then I’ll spell out what I call the “apologist vegan argument” (AVA), which indeed explains why this particular objection against (fully consistent) veganism may hold some water.

vegan apologist bingo

As you will see, the hardline vegan argument usually is very binary and black and white in nature. If something is derived from animals or involves animal use, it is not vegan, period. The apologist vegan argument is more nuanced.

Here we go.

Backyard eggs (“It’s fine if people eat vegan except for eggs from chickens from their own backyard.”)
Hardline vegan argument (HVA): eggs are animal products. Vegans don’t eat animal products. No exceptions.
Apologist vegan argument (AVA): while there certainly may entail some problems, backyard eggs may be the single least problematic animal product, and conceding that they are often not very problematic at all, may increase the credibility of our position towards non-vegans, as well as making the transition a bit easier for them.

Part time vegan (“Part time vegans are taking steps, and are helpful for the animals.”)
HVA: there’s no such thing as a part time vegan. You’re vegan or you’re not. When people still eat non-vegan meals, they are still part of the problem and still contributing to animal suffering.
AVA: a part time vegan is part of the solution, by having a lower suffering footprint, and by helping to push demand for vegan products, thus helping to make going vegan easier for everyone (due to increased availability). Moreover, part time vegans are much closer to going vegan than omnivores. They should be stimulated and encouraged.
Note that these arguments also work for the “baby steps” objection (which apparently the maker of the bingo card finds so objectionable that they put it in the center)

Service dogs (“Vegans shouldn’t be against stuff like dogs that help the blind.”)
HVA: using an animal is not vegan.
AVA: these dogs are very helpful for blind people, and it’s certainly not obvious that they are mistreated and/or suffering. This should not be a priority. Speaking out against service dogs may easily come over as very harsh, and does not contribute to a positive image of vegans and veganism.

Oysters are vegan (“Oysters aren’t really animals, we can eat them.”)
HVA: oysters are animals. Not vegan.
AVA: there seem to be reasonable arguments to claim that oysters are not sentient, and in this sense are more like plants than animals. Conceding this point, or leaving this question open, may help us come across as reasonable, open-minded, non-dogmatic people. If we are reasonable and open-minded, many others will be much more likely to actually have a conversation with us.

Personal choice (“People still have the freedom to eat what they want. We shouldn’t push our beliefs on them.”)
HVA: our actions are not a personal choice when other beings are involved and suffer because of your choices.
AVA: it’s good to explain that eating animal products or not is definitely not a choice on the level of choosing the color of your wallpaper: shall or shall we not eat animal products, is not the same as shall we paint the living room blue or yellow. However, people are indeed free to eat what they want to eat. I think that by seeing things like this, our communication towards non-vegans may be less pushy, judgmental or restrictive, so that there is more chance they have the mental space to freely consider these serious issues.

Everyone can’t be vegan (“We can’t expect the whole world to go vegan.”)
HVA: there is no excuse not to go vegan, everyone can do it.
AVA: while many people in the west are in a perfect position to go vegan, it may be good to realize – and to show that we understand – that there are people for whom going vegan is less easy than for others. Some people are way less privileged than others, coping with financial problems, family issues, health issues, allergies, cultural issues, food deserts… While these may not make it strictly impossible to go vegan, they may at least make it (much) more difficult.

Humans are oppressed too (“Animals are not the only issue, let’s not lose sight of other issues.”)
OVA: human suffering pales in comparison with what we are doing to animals
AVA: the scale at which animals suffer and die at human hands is indeed massive and incredible. But that can never justify that anyone would ignore human suffering, or prioritize animal suffering at the cost of everything else.

Lab created meat is vegan (“Clean meat, created from animal cells, does not entail suffering.”)
HVA: it’s not vegan, because it’s an animal product. Not only does the production of clean meat require a biopsy from an animal, it also requires an animal growth medium. Moreover, we don’t need clean meat, as there are so great meat and dairy alternatives these days.
AVA: The biopsy is pretty much harmless. Moreover, if in the future we are more accepting of GMO technology in this, we can make eternally self-replicating cells, so that we only need to take the biopsy once. As for the medium, we are developping – and will use in the future – animal free growth mediums. In any case, clean meat has the potential to prevent massive amounts of animal suffering. As for not needing it: if plant based foods are sufficient, then why is not everyone vegan yet? Apparently there are still holes and lacks, and we should try everything to fill these up.

Honey is vegan (“Let’s not mention honey and consider it vegan, rather than talking about details.”)
HVA: honey is an animal product and therefore not vegan.
AVA: technically honey is not a vegan product, but focusing on this will make veganism seem less credible (it’s such a natural and healthy product in most people’s eyes) and more difficult. It’s good to a least not always volunteer the “honey is not vegan” information.

Don’t say rape when referring to animals (“The word rape in the context of dairy is a turn-off”)
HVA: but dairy IS rape.
AVA: dairy may indeed be similar to rape in non-trivial ways, but a farmer artificially inseminating a cow has a completely different intention than a rapist. Also, public acceptance of rape and artificial insemination of animals is completely different. Therefore it is not strategic to compare the one with the other. This kind of comparison will often alienate non-vegans. It is, however, useful in many situations to point out to people that cows don’t get pregnant every year without human interference.

Vegetarian is better than omnivore (“We should applaud people becoming vegetarian.”)
HVA: a vegetarian is still part of the problem. There is so much suffering involved in the production and consumption of eggs and dairy.
AVA: eggs and dairy certainly are problematic on different fronts, but vegetarians are doing most of the work, having a much lower suffering footprint, and helping to increase demand for and supply of meat alternatives. Besides, they might be well on the way to going vegan.

This is why people hate vegans (“Vegans shouldn’t do this or say this, it makes people dislike us.”)
HVA: vegans shouldn’t be critized for the way they communicate or for the methods they use. We’re pointing out very serious stuff. Anything goes, basically.
AVA: conceding the point that there certainly are vegans who are communicating in a less than optimal manner, or that there are methods that might be counterproductive, may again lead the non-vegan to take you a bit more seriously and close the gap between us and them. If you just sanction anything vegans do, you may be considered to be “one of those”, and the other party will not be willing to keep the dialogue open.

Only eat animal products from dumpster (“I’m vegan except when I find free animal products in the trash”.)
HVA: not vegan.
AVA: Freegans are not contributing to demand. They may have their own convictions for being freegan – like not wasting food. They’re a part of the solution, not the problem.

I hope you can see that the apologist vegan arguments do hold water, both in terms of content and in terms of process. Even if “apologist” is used as a term of abuse, I definitely won’t shy away from trying to find truth and valid arguments – wherever I may find them – in non-vegans’ claims. That’s because I want to build rapport with them, in the hope I can somehow help them make better choices. And because, frankly, sometimes they do have a point.

And sure, we should not find excuses for everything, or be too tolerant of wrong things. But we should always take into account where people are coming from, what time they are living in, what the norms of the day are, before we judge and condemn others. If we do that, we will see quite easily why not everyone is doing what we are doing. Yet.

Thoughts on the “Cube of Truth” and Anonymous for the Voiceless

Given that I write and comment about strategies and communication styles within the vegan/animal rights movement, people often ask me about my views on certain tactics and approaches. One of the questions I get most often is what my view is on the “Cube of Truth” street actions by the group Anonymous for the voiceless. In this post I’ll briefly share some some thoughts on this particular form of action.

To help form my opinion, I attended one cube of truth in Berlin, somewhere in Spring of this year (2018). I didn’t actively participate, but was there as an observer. My thoughts and impressions are mainly based on this one instance, and also on my impressions of online videos, and feedback by other vegans. This still gives a very incomplete picture, so I’ll consider my opinion as preliminary. Judging from what I hear, while the structure of the Cube of Truth is always more or less the same, the way passers-by are approached and talked to seems to differ much among cubes or groups.

For those who are not familiar with the concept: a certain number of activists are standing in a busy area. They are arranged in a square, all facing outwards. They hold signs (displaying messages like “truth” or “watch to see why we are here”) and laptops showing graphic images of animal cruelty. They wear Guy Fawkes masks. Passers-by who stop to watch the footage will be addressed by other activists, who are not in the Cube, but who are outreachers. These activists will ask the onlookers what they think of the images, inform them further, and try to get a commitment to change (see below).

anonymous for the voiceless demo

This concept has become very popular, and has spread all over the world since its conceptualization in April 2016 by Paul Bashir and Asal Alamdari in Australia. Together with DXE and the Save Movement, the Cube/Anonymous represent today’s most popular street actions. At the moment of writing, there have been 4000 demonstrations in 650 cities worldwide, allegedly convincing 215.000 bystanders to take veganism seriously.

My experience
My impressions of the one Cube I attended in Berlin were largely positive. I was rather impressed with how I heard the outreachers talk to the onlookers. Most were not pushy. They were asking questions and listening, rather than just blurting out all the facts and numbers on animal suffering they had. I was told that outreachers only approach people who have been watching for a while, and will not bother with those who just walk by and seem not to be open for any conversation.
Outreachers seem to ask people to go vegan or to try Challenge 22 (a vegan challenge of 22 days). From what I read and hear, there’s no desire to ask for “steps” or reduction, possibly because this is not considered an ethical ask (I’ll get back to this).
I did one little test with a couple of onlookers who had been addressed by an outreacher and asked them about their experience of the conversation. They answered that it had been positive. They were not ready to go vegan, but they had definitely received food for thought. I’m not sure whether this couple was checked as a success (“will take veganism seriously”) or not by the outreachers.

It was moving to watch the audience being moved (see if you are moved by that yourself, here)

I can definitely see some very positive aspects to this kind of activism. First of all, it seems to be very successful in attracting new activists. It’s easy to imagine that standing there, trying to reach people, together with other activists, gives one a satisfying feeling – a feeling of actually contributing to the movement and helping animals. No matter how big the actual impact is, this is valuable in itself. The movement needs as many active people as possible (something I consider more important than being “very very vegan”). I can see that many of these people could transition to other kinds of activism (which would be especially important if some day we’d conclude that this form of activism is not sufficiently effective – a conclusion I’m not able to make at this moment).
It’s easy to see that this form of joint activism is more attractive to many vegans than just standing in the street (with leaflets or a sign) by oneself, and that doing things in group provides a sense of community and mutual support (after a Cube, activists often get together for a meal or a drink).

Some possible concerns

The masks
There are concerns about the masks as well. Some people I talked to seem to find them off putting. I do understand the purpose of using masks in general: they make it clear to people who are walking by from afar that something is going on there, and this could motivate them to come closer and check things out. Of course, if they find the masks scary, or too alternative looking, they might not.
A second purpose of the masks is that a person with a mask looks more like a kind of statue, and that may make it easier for people to come closer and to watch the computer screens for a while. One doesn’t feel one is being watched. Of course, you could ask the question why the laptops aren’t just put on some kind of stand, without any people having to carry them. Presumably that might take away from the visual spectacle.
As to this particular mask: I’m less sure of the choice. I don’t think many people know or care about the symbolism behind it. And if it would be a bit scary to a sufficient percentage of onlookers, it might be interesting to think about other masks.

Graphic images
The day of the demo was bright and sunny, and that meant that it was hard to see the computer screens. To me, that seemed kind of an advantage. Showing graphic images to unsuspicious onlookers is probably the most controversial part of this form of activism. It’s especially concerning when there are children among the audience. Seeing very graphic images may trigger or traumatize some people. Keep in mind that people have not given their consent and have not been warned about what they are going to see. They just approach the screens, not knowing what to expect, and may suddenly find themselves staring – with their small children – at blood and gore.
This is not to say I believe that negative footage should never be shown. But there is a difference between very bloody and gory footage (animals’ throats being cut in slaughterhouses for instance) and other images that may also very well pull heartstrings, but are not as shocking. Apparently images from this latter category are also used – like this video of a mother cow running after her calves that are being taken away… Stuff like this is not traumatizing or gory, but could very well stay on one’s mind for a long time (subtitles could be added to make more clear what is happening).

Impact?
I wonder to what extent tests and polls are being done in general, and to what extent Anonymous is confident about results and impact. It seems that as a metric they use the number of “conversions”. Outreachers check a conversion when a person verbally commits to one of three things: 1. Going vegan. 2. Doing the vegan22 challenge. 3. Watching one or some of the vegan documentaries with the intention of learning more about veganism. Outreachers are generally asked to be conservative in their decisions as to whether or not to count an interaction as successful.
Obviously the impact has a lot to do with how many people-hours go into to an action like this, versus how many people are actually being reached. If you stand there for three hours and only reach a dozen people, it seems not the best use of one’s time. I don’t have an idea of the average number of people reached though, and I guess one event will inevitably be better and bigger than another.

Conclusion and some suggestions

Like I wrote at the beginning, my impression is based on limited experience and information. But from what I can see, if you want to do one-to-one outreach (rather than more institutional outreach) and if you want to talk about moral arguments (rather than health, or rather than working with food), then Anonymous and their Cube of truth seem to offer an appealing way of doing activism for many vegans.
Based on what I wrote above, here are some suggestions that Anonymous could possibly consider:

  • Check the efficacy of the masks, and use different ones if these don’t seem to be the best ones. Maybe make the whole thing visually a bit more cheerful and attractive
  • Consider keeping outright gory images to a minimum and replace them by other coverage that may be more effective and less off-putting
  • Do more research about impact in general. Maybe use something like “mystery shoppers”: people from the movement who walk in on the outreachers and pretend they are non-vegans, maybe playing devil’s advocate at times. Other activists could have “meta-conversations”: conversations with people who were approached by outreachers
  • Put sufficient efforts in training people in good communication skills. I’ve learned that Anonymous is launching a global online education initiative called “AV Academy”.
  • Consider using a wider variety of asks and drop the dogma that we can only ask for veganism/vegan challenges or nothing. Many more people might be open to doing Meatless Monday or seriously reducing their consumption (for some of my criticism of “abolitionism” and the way this term is used, see this piece)
  • If at all possible, consider using food. I’m a big believer in food outreach. I realize handing out food makes the logistics a lot heavier, but it would contribute to a friendlier image and combine the head and the stomach. Maybe handing out coupons for nearby vegan restaurants could be interesting.

I may update this article in the future when I get new insights or information.

 

 

Collaborating to change the world’s diet – a report from the 50by40 Corporate Outreach Summit in Berlin

The 50by40 Corporate Outreach Summit, organized by ProVeg International and the Humane Society of the US, took place April 27-29 2018 in Berlin. I consider it a milestone for the vegan movement. In this post, I’ll briefly sum up some of the things I learned, or remembered, or that I just want to share.

Participants at this conference were united by the “50by40” objective, which is the global ambition to reduce the production of animal products internationally by 50% by the year 2040. This goal is quite in line with (though slightly more ambitious than) the goals of organizations like Greenpeace, WWF and Compassion in World Farming, who have similar objectives. The summit was organized to get a big group of organizations in the vegan and animal rights movement together, and to build an international alliance to collaborate around achieving this goal. The motto of the conference was, “If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together”.

This conference was probably the most international  vegan or animal rights conference I have ever attended, with people from over thirty different countries and six continents. Attendees were mostly staff members or core volunteers from organizations in their respective countries, with some academics thrown into the mix. While the groups present were mostly from the animal and vegan space (there were some environmental organizations, like Greenpeace, as well), the idea would be to create a broader platform in the future. There is a virtually unlimited number of players that could get behind the 50% reduction by 2040 objective, including health and environmental organizations, businesses and governments.

To me, this conference was in many ways a testament to our growing up and maturing as a movement. The people who were there, and the content of our talks, testified to an increasing professionalism, a focus on institutional impact, the development of our skills and expertise, and even on a growing awareness of turning inward and mastering our own inner demons (I’ll get back to this).

I started my own talk by telling the audience about an incident at a vegetarian conference in the (I think) eighties, where the vegetarian delegates got sick from eating undercooked beans and had to be carried off to the hospital. This little anecdote was meant to show how far we have come. There was a time when we couldn’t even get the food right at our own parties, and now some of us are showing the way to the Sodexos and Compasses and Aramark’s of this world! Which brings me to…

Caterers

This conference was indeed all about institutional change, about doing things with a big impact by reaching out to the right people. Some very impressive examples of this were given by Kristie Middleton and Ken Botts, both of HSUS. HSUS’ Forward Food program has by now trained 4000 culinary professionals, including people at some of the most prestigious schools. The program has helped switch over 350 million meals from animal-based to plant based, saving over 140 million animals.

Ken Botts is responsible for the first all vegan cafeteria in the US (possibly in the world), in a place no other than the University of North Texas! Building on that success, HSUS is now working together with Aramark and Compass, and will later also collaborate with Sodexo. This collaboration and training is not just happening in the US; HSUS is connecting their US contacts at each of these caterers with key employees from these companies in other countries. The program went from just US to international in merely one year. Ken Botts knew that having one local success story would allow them to work their way up the chain.

From Portugal and Nuno Alvim came another great example of institutional change. The Portuguese Vegetarian Society successfully lobbied for a law that makes a vegan option mandatory in all public cafeterias. Right now, fourteen percent of the meals consumed in hospitals, for instance, are plant based.

And then, there is Brazil. As if the Brazilians’ success with the Meatless Monday program (through which millions and millions of vegan meals are offered annually) is not enough – shoutout to Guilherme Carvalho from the Brazilian Vegetarian Society –  HSI (Humane Society International) has collaborated with a Bahia district public prosecutor to make sure that by 2019, the schools in four cities will be entirely plant based! Sandra Lopes from HSI Brazil told us that this collaboration will result in 23 million vegan meals a year, for 33.000 students, in 137 schools and daycare centers!

There were other examples and testimonials by Kristin Höhlig, Katleen Haefele and Paula Rassman about Proveg Germany reaching out to food services and schools, as well as by Mercy For Animals’ Alan Darer and Charlie Huson from HSI UK. Most of these speakers explicitly mentioned that the word ‘vegan’ is still scary or unattractive for their institutional partners, and that you can’t approach them with an animal rights message. It’s better to talk about plant based, plant protein or conscious eating…

Supermarkets and Restaurants

Institutional change is obviously not just about reaching out to the big catering companies. Mahi Klosterhalfen from the Albert Schweitzer Foundation in Germany told us about their ranking system for supermarkets, and how it helps to increase companies’ ambition by creating healthy competition among them. Melanie Jaecques from EVA in Belgium provided interesting figures from large scale research about meat consumption in Belgium, and presented a graph showing how meat consumption in Belgium seems to be dropping significantly faster than in other European countries (one of the not so many Belgian things I can be proud of).

Alison Rabschnuk from the Good Food Institute (US) talked about restaurant rankings. GFI’s observation is that there is tremendous opportunity in the out of home market to provide plant based foods. These efforts could be particularly rewarding as 33% of all sales in this market are realized by just the top one hundred restaurants. Alison emphasized that GFI is not mainly about making things easier for vegans (though that should be the eventual effect), but rather providing options for flexitarians. Actually, in their Good Food Scorecard, restaurants get extra points if they do not use words like vegan, vegetarian, or meatless (plant based is ok)! They recommend restaurants be as subtle as possible in their labeling.

Some caveats

We should not kid ourselves. The challenge is still enormous, and it’s not all rainbows and butterflies from here on. Leah Garces of Compassion in World Farming USA warned us about so-called false wins. More plant based food doesn’t necessarily mean less animal foods. Since their introduction of the vegan meatball, meat consumption in Ikea restaurants, for instance, has gone up. Reduction is not simple for companies. The most often heard objections from their side are that there is a lack of demand and that the products are still way too expensive. According to Leah, if we want to succeed, we’re going to have to be open to all kinds of solutions, including some we don’t like, like blended products (see this interview with Meatless’ Jos Hugense)

While Nathalie Rolland (Maastricht University) can mainly see benefits in clean meat, Arianna Ferrari took the devil’s advocate position on this topic. She said we have a tendency to overestimate the environmental advantages of clean meat and that life cycle analysis studies show a more modest picture. Neither should we fetishize technological progress, which has a long history of failures. And, we shouldn’t lose sight of the dangers and downsides of monopolies, patents, issues of distributive justice and access to innovations. Arianna also had questions about animal suffering and clean meat. Is a biopsy necessarily cruelty free? Could clean meat perpetuate the asymmetry between humans and non-humans? Her arguments didn’t entirely convince me, but it is good to have someone take a critical position on this important topic.

Rising in the East

I was very impressed by the presence of so many people and groups from East Asia, and I was moved by what is going on in that far-away corner of the world. Frando Hakuryu and Haruko Kawano talked about their work with Vege Project in Japan, and Mavis Chang and Charlene Yeh spoke about the veg outreach of the Tse-Xin Organic Agriculture Foundation, who were hosts of a CEVA Vegan Advocacy training that Melanie Joy and I did in Taiwan recently. We also heard about Goal Blue in China, and we had heard of several other East Asian groups the night before the conference. Hazel Zhang impressed me with her for-profit Veg Planet in China, which already has about fifteen paid staff and reaches a lot of people. The movement in East Asia is young, but it’s moving and growing. It’s also inspiring to see that more and more American or European groups are realizing the importance of working there, and are lending their support. What happens in the East won’t stay in the East; it will affect the entire world.

Who is the enemy?

Sebastian Joy, CEO of ProVeg International, spoke about “collective impact” and what is necessary for a successful alliance: a backbone organization providing the coordination; a common agenda; shared measurements; mutually reinforcing activities; and open and continuous communication.

Aaron Ross, who is coordinating the Open Wing Alliance (an international coalition working for better living conditions for chickens), talked about the challenges of working together within our movement. Vegans don’t seem to eat only plants, he said; they sometimes also end up eating themselves. Among the difficulties we have to overcome in working with other groups, Aaron mentioned logistics (coordination of resources and communication across the globe over many different time zones), ideology (what we define as vegan, what we accept from a company…), interpersonal differences (the chances of us not liking each other seems to increase over time), difficult personalities, or a lack of cohesion (too many cooks in the kitchen).

In my own talk, I explained that we can work together with basically anyone and that maybe our biggest enemy is… bad vegan food (thanks for that answer, Eve!). However, Aaron Ross gave a deeper and more interesting answer to the question “who is the enemy?”. The enemy, he said, is within. The enemy is our ego that makes it difficult for us, sometimes, to share victories or to credit each other. Sometimes, said Aaron, we seem to care more about our reputation than about helping animals.

Long time supporter and funder of the movement Ari Nessel gave the same answer to the enemy question. The enemy, as well as the solution, is us! In order to succeed, Ari said, it’s not enough to reach out; we also have to reach inside, and develop our heart and mind. Before and during the conference, Ari led several meditation sessions for participants. Even though I completely suck at meditation, I can see its usefulness for both personal and organizational development, and I’m really happy that he and other people are introducing this idea into our movement. We will, indeed, only be able to successfully work together on so huge an issue as ours if we become self-aware of our own less effective tendencies. And, more than that, maybe we can learn to see those who we think of as our enemies, as our allies. As people who, in the end, are in the same human boat.

Other interesting talks were given by Jimmy Pierson from ProVeg UK, explaining a new “Peak Meat” campaign, Jasmijn De Boo from Proveg International showing how many acquisitions of veg companies by meat companies we’ve seen in the last year or so, and why that is not necessarily a problem. Researcher Helen Harwatt explained a new accreditation scheme for companies that would take into account health, environment and animals. Pablo Moleman and Alexandra Kirsch from ProVeg spoke about lobbying companies to remove small problematic ingredients from their products, which could save a lot of animals. Mathias Rohra, ProVeg’s COO, is a man who has made the jump from the profit sector (he used to work at Coca Cola) to the non profit. We were all happy to see quite a few more people like him in the audience. Indeed, having people on board who know from experience how to speak the language of businesspeople is crucially important.

This conference felt like a beginning. A beginning of something new, something more powerful and stronger than we ever had before. I think that if the animals could see us, they would be proud and hopeful. And, I was glad to be part of this, and thank ProVeg and the Humane Society, and especially David Pedersen and Kristie Middleton, for making this possible.

It seems we have decided to go far by going together…

 

The vegan burger that isn’t vegan

impossible burger

The Luna Grill, a restaurant in San Diego, is serving the vegan Beyond Burger (yeay!). Only, they serve it with feta cheese, on a non vegan bun.

impossible burger

At first sight, this is seems a bit of an absurdity, and one can easily understand tweeter Vanilla Bean’s frustration here:

twitter quote about vegan being frustratedApparently, at least some meat eaters share this idea: “Nonsensical as vegan replacements might seem to some, refusing to serve them in a vegan-friendly way is irrefutably more so” – writes The Independent.

These reactions make some sense. And yet, I think both vegan Vanilla Bean, and The Independent’s meat-eating (we assume) journalist are revealing that they are starting out from the erroneous idea that vegan products are only for vegans.

Of course, vegans love vegan products, and they will eat them and rave about them on social media and be their prime customers (at least if there’s no problematic mother company involved – see Why vegans shouldn’t boycott Daiya cheese). But, it’s actually not they in the first place who need vegan products. Nor are they the main customer segment, or the main people to be reached. Companies like Beyond Meat, Impossible Foods, or Hampton Creek – all of them largely mission driven enterprises –  understand this. They want the non-vegans to turn to vegan products and have them eat more and more of them. If you can get non-vegans to eat your products, you have more impact and a bigger customer potential at the same time. Two vegan sausages with one stone, as they say.

Of course, this Luna Grill restaurant could (probably) easily be more sympathetic to vegan requests and make their burger without that damn feta, and on a vegan bun (although I don’t encourage people to get too nervous about microingredients out of the house – heresy, I know). I do hope Luna Grill and all other non-vegan restaurants will be more forthcoming in the future, and I hope we will see more and more vegans requesting vegan products, so that there’s more and more menu options that are entirely vegan, and by default. Luna Grill here may offer shitty service to vegans, and may not be worth visiting. But that isn’t the point here.

If we want non-vegans to taste, eat, buy… vegan products, and if we want these products to spread widely, we shouldn’t get nervous about them turning up in non-vegan dishes. Indeed, ever more frequently, we find vegan products, like Daiya cheese or Just Mayo, in non-vegan dishes – for allergy, price, or other reasons – and indeed, it would be our loss if that weren’t the case. It’s probably not all that different for meat substitutes. If we want these products to be appreciated as products in their own right, they will need to be integrated by enthusiastic non-vegans in non-vegan meals.

The good thing is, of course, that eating these products, whenever they are encountered, helps people shift more and more in the right direction along the plant-based spectrum. And, in and of themselves, vegan patties obviously represent animals being spared, whether or not the patties are served on a vegan bun.

Thus, we should welcome vegan products in non-vegan dishes, just as we should applaud non-vegans eating vegan products. It’s the fastest way forward to a vegan world.

Eating Animals – a review of the documentary

I had the chance to see an early screening of Eating Animals, the documentary after the book by Jonathan Safran Foer. Apparently, Natalie Portman, who is the narrator of the documentary, turned vegan after reading Foer’s book. Together, they approached filmmaker Christopher Quinn, whose work they liked, and asked him to turn the book into a movie. Eating Animals will be out in theatres in North America in June, and later on Hulu; so, it seems that it could reach a pretty large audience. That would be well-deserved, as it is a beautiful movie. 

eating animals documentary

I think Eating Animals is one of the best food documentaries I’ve seen so far. As a seasoned vegan who is quite familiar with the issues, I had not expected to see or hear much that was new. But the documentary managed to surprise me, and offers more than just another catalogue of animal agriculture-related problems. For one thing, it gives us some history of how intensive animal farming came into existence and explains how corporations like Tyson came to be. And, it also tells us stories of people caring – in different ways – for and about animals. It tells these stories very well, and with a lot of heart.

One of these is the story of veterinarian and scientist James Keen, who worked at the U.S. Meat Animal Research Center (USMARC), a huge livestock research facility in Nebraska, and became a whistle-blower after witnessing practices with animals he could not condone. Keen leaked the information to a journalist, which resulted in a long New York Times expose, which in turn led to a federal investigation, bills, and reforms. Eating Animals makes it very clear that all that Keen did he did at great expense to his own life and happiness. Keen had to move, and eventually saw his marriage break down under the pressure his whistle-blowing had created. It is hard not to admire the man for his courage and for following his conscience.

There’s also the story of a contracted chicken farmer and his family. He testifies about how difficult that kind of life was, and how he felt a slave to the corporation that contracted him. We see him move through a huge barn of chickens, picking up the dead ones and showing to the camera the health problems they suffer from. While this man is or was instrumental in exploiting chickens, he was himself exploited. It is hard not to feel compassion towards him.

Finally, there’s turkey farmer Frank Reese, who already featured in Foer’s book. Frank tells us a lot about turkeys. He talks about how breeding and selecting the traditional Thanksgiving turkeys for meat has made them “stupider”, and how his breed of turkeys is a lot smarter. Actually, his goal is to keep certain old breeds of turkeys alive. And, if you want to keep them in existence, they have to be part of the food chain, he says.
Now, me and most other vegans will not agree to this, obviously. First of all, I do think that, if we deem this important, we can keep breeds alive without the animals necessarily having to have a certain economic or food value (apart from animals in sanctuaries, there probably will have to be some value, but this value can be in terms of companionship or aesthetics). Secondly, why would one insist on keeping certain breeds alive in the first place? The extinction of a species can obviously have negative ecological consequences, and it may somehow look sad when a species goes extinct (particularly if it’s humans’ fault), but to me it is the individual welfare that matters, not the value of the species. Which is why I don’t always understand well-meaning efforts to reintroduce certain species of wildlife in an area, unless this would increase overall happiness and well being.

The eventual fate of Frank’s turkeys is the same as all other turkeys: they end up in the slaughterhouse. It seems undeniable, however, that these birds have a much better life than the average turkey, and very probably also a better life than many or most animals in the wild. To many vegans these may seem like “welfarist” non-arguments. Any of these vegans, however, would, any day, choose to be a turkey with Frank above being your average turkey, and one has to be blind not to appreciate the difference this kind of life makes. More philosophically, I have lately started to think more and more about the question of whether being killed by humans negates all the happiness of an animal’s life that came before that moment. I know this is vegan heresy (but, then, I’m some sort of vegan heretic), and I plan to explore this question more in depth in another post.
I don’t know the man personally, but it seems clear that Frank Reese cares for his turkeys (though not enough not to kill them – vegans might quickly add). I had the chance to have a drink with the director after the screening of the movie, and he told me that Frank finds the whole transportation and slaughtering process horrible, and is a great proponent of developing more humane ways of slaughter.

You may get the impression from all this that the movie advocates happy meat. Certainly, it is not as unequivocally vegan or abolitionist as say Earthlings or Forks over Knives, but at no time did I get the impression that people would come away with the idea that it’s just a matter of switching to better meat, and that this better meat can be found in every supermarket. Indeed, the director told me that Frank’s turkeys cost 150 dollars per bird. The way Frank Reese raises his turkeys is exceptional, which is one of the reasons why Foer picked him out.
Also, the film includes several appearances by long time vegan activist Bruce Friedrich, presently CEO of the Good Food Institute. Bruce openly asks the question of whether we need to eat animals at all.

The movie has some beautiful cinematography, with wonderful shots of agricultural landscapes and farms, and the scenes with Frank and his turkey’s are amazing – especially the final one. On the other hand, there’s a significant amount of graphic footage (most of it archival images) to swallow; so, be warned.

I’ll finish with the beginning of the movie, which consists of a few harrowing lines spoken in Natalie Portman’s beautiful voice. I asked the director whose words they were, and he said they were his own, based on conversations he had had during his research into animal suffering. This is not an exact quote (I didn’t write it down), but it should be pretty close:

If animals don’t dwell on the past or ponder the future, they have only the present. And, if their circumstances brought them to a present in which they suffer, then suffering is the totality of their existence.

Want to make the world a better place? You may want to rethink your relationship with money.

money and a heart

Did you, like me, grow up thinking that money doesn’t make you happy and that there are much more important things in life? Were you raised with the idea that money is dirty, and something to avoid? That striving for it might make you a bad person? The result of such an upbringing – and way of thinking – may be that you are a nice and caring person, with less money than you could have had. And, that’s a pity, because you could have used that money to do good.
money and a heart

Money: holy grail, or 
I’ve come to realize that it’s not just greedy people that may have a problematic relationship with money, but also people who I will call “do-gooders” (with all due respect, and for want of a better word).
While the greedy people may live with the idea that money is the most wonderful thing in the world and want as much of it as they can get, the do-gooders will often avoid it as much as they can, believing it is a bad thing. They will see being rich as a vice and being relatively poor as a virtue (I know, this dichotomy of greedy bastards versus do-gooders is a bit too simplistic, but let’s keep it for the sake of the argument).

You might be missing out
At this point you may already be pulling up your nose, slightly disgusted at the fact that on this “non-profit” blog, I’m writing about making – or at least not shunning – money. This almost sounds like the text of a would-be financial guru who is telling you it’s your right to get rich, right? But, you having that feeling would exactly prove my point.

Let me try to put you a bit at ease. First of all, I’m not talking about getting super wealthy here (more about what I mean later). Neither am I talking about making more money for your own sake (though I wouldn’t condemn that). Rather, I suggest that we learn to appreciate the value of money for the good things we can do with it. And no, I don’t believe donations or philanthro-capitalism will solve all the problems in the world, and I do think we need more systemic solutions. I believe there are quite a few problems with how a lot of money is made, the role it has in our society and the way people go after it. And, I believe that unbridled capitalism suffers from a lot of shortcomings.
But, I also believe that more money in the hands of good, caring people is a good thing, and that the do-goodies shouldn’t leave the making of money to the greedy ones.

money - more money in the hands

My career without much money
Because telling people in social movements that they might want to care more about money will, in the eyes of some, unavoidably make me look un-virtuous, let me add that my own twenty-year career as an animal rights advocate has been largely unpaid or for very small financial returns. I had the ability to do that, because my girlfriend owns the house we live in (thanks to her grandparents); so, we don’t have to pay rent, and we rent out part of it through AirBnb, which provides a bit of extra income. The fact, however, that I can do my activism unpaid doesn’t mean that I am against people making money from activism. If one can earn one’s keep doing something good, and, thus, have more time to do it, what would be the problem with that?

20.000 euros down the drain?
Back to where we were. This is what I realized: because I never learned to take an interest in money, I missed out on opportunities to make a difference. My parents are quite ethical people who care about making the world a better place. But, in not teaching me to sufficiently value money and in giving me the impression I should shun it, they may have inadvertently reduced my chances of doing good.

Let me illustrate this more concretely. I remember at one point – about twenty years ago – having about ten thousand euros in my bank account (back then it was in a different currency, but never mind that). Suppose I had had no need to touch that amount since then, and that it had just been sitting in my savings account. The average interest on a savings account in the past twenty years in Belgium has been about two percent. At that rate, after twenty years, that capital would have grown to about 14.500 €. If I had invested the initial 10.000 € in something (stocks or bonds, for instance) that would have offered me a higher interest rate (say a reasonable and realistic seven percent), my capital would have increased to about 36.000 €. That is a difference of more than 20.000 €. And, that’s just on this small initial sum. Note that present day interest is usually less than one percent, while inflation rates are at two percent; so, your money is quickly losing its value in a regular savings account.

compound interest graph
Einstein called compound interest the eighth wonder of the world.

The problem was that I had no financial knowledge at all, and wasn’t motivated or stimulated to learn about it. Einstein famously called compound interest the eighth miracle of the world (check this page to learn a bit more), but I only really realized how it works this year, at age 44. It’s also only now that I realize a lot of the things we think about investing are incorrect clichés, and that when done properly and wisely, investing is not as risky as most people think it is. In fact, one line I read again and again is that we can’t afford not to invest. Maybe I’m particularly late and slow, but there must be many more people – do-gooders especially – like me (my guess is the “money = evil” attitude is more prevalent in Europe than in the US and other parts of the world).

All the good you can do
If today, you are still convinced that money is dirty and evil and you don’t want any of it, your reaction might be: 1. so what? and 2. investing like that is unethical anyway. I’ll respond briefly to these arguments, but I am under no illusion that I will convince the most anti-capitalist among readers. So be it.
Regarding “so what?”: if you think rationally about this for a minute, you know that there is no doubt that money can be used to do good. You could do good with this money in several ways:
– You could donate it to a non-profit.
– You could invest it in a sustainable or compassionate startup.
– You could even live on it yourself for a year or a couple of years (depending where you live), so that you don’t have to have some run of the mill paid job and have more time to volunteer.
– You could start your own project with it.

I think it’s clear that you are better off having this money than not having it. Unless of course, having made that money by investing would somehow be necessarily unethical (which is the second objection). There obviously are many unethical ways to make money. You can uncritically invest in stocks or funds where your money is used for bad things. But, that is not necessarily so, and many banks today offer sustainable investment options. These may not be entirely satisfactory to all of us, but it is possible to find ways to invest that are healthy and sound, or at least neutral. Moreover, apart from increasing your own returns, you also help these companies grow by helping them to raise capital. And, if you want, as a shareholder you can even participate and vote at their annual general meeting and help determine the course of the company.
Some would argue that by participating in the stock market, one is contributing to a system that is fundamentally flawed and problematic. But, then, so is putting your money in a savings account – because that too is a way of investing in and contributing to systems you may fault – and with even less control, at that!
Probably many of us have simplistic ideas about capitalism. This talk by Jonathan Haidt does a good job at illustrating that.

Let’s look at some other objections to making money – all of which I held at some point, or still partly hold.

“Money corrupts. People who are interested in money don’t end up caring about the world.”
I don’t think there is any law of nature that dictates that money corrupts. It may also be that people who are greedy to begin with are the ones to acquire a lot of money, rather than the other way around. In any case, in this post, I’m not at all talking about the ruthless accumulation of wealth through all means possible. I’m simply talking about taking *some* interest in money and investing it in an ethical way, so that we have more means at our disposal to do good.
Also, don’t forget about people who got really rich and because of that are returning a lot of their wealth to society and are investing it, for instance, in the animal rights movement or any other movement. Our movement is actually to a large extent funded by people who made a lot of money (hopefully in the nicest ways possible) and are donating it to a cause they care about.

“Money is irrelevant.”
Some people – often those who are interested in spirituality – would hold that money is not what makes the world go round and that it is actually irrelevant. It’s not about what you have, but what you are, etc. I’d say: try to tell that to poor people. Probably only those who are privileged enough can say things like this (even though there might be some grains of truth in these opinions here and there).

“Money and the role it plays in our society is inherently problematic.”
As long as we’re not enlightened and don’t have the means to freely provide each other with whatever we need, money is a convenient way to exchange goods and services. At the same time, I think it’s a pretty primitive one, and I can imagine societies and worlds in which we’re no longer using it. Too many things are determined by how much money we have, and shouldn’t be. Here’s a simple example: for a person with little money, it is much more difficult to ride a train in first class. Yet, she may have a higher need for it: she may need to focus, have concentration problems, suffer from panic attacks and have more need for quiet, or whatever. The fact that her level of wealth determines how she can travel does not seem optimal at all.

If we want new systems, we’ll need money for that, too. Even if you loathe capitalism and want to throw it over, you’ll probably do it faster if you have money to help create a movement. There is an attempt in my country to create a new kind of bank (a bank of the people). To start it, they need… money. I think a good way to see it is that any new systems we are going to build will partly or largely be built with money from the old systems…

My preliminary conclusions
quote about missing out on opportunities through like of moneyIf I would have children (I don’t and won’t), I would try to teach them that money is not an end in itself, but that as a means to great ends, it can be extremely helpful. I would make sure they don’t grow up thinking that money, and making it, is bad or evil or corrupting. I would try to raise them with a desire to become people with integrity, who also value money for the good they can do with it. I would teach them some financial literacy, and warn them to not under- or over-estimate the risks involved in investing.

Many do-gooders too might want to slightly rethink their relationship with money. It would be good if movements of do-gooders told their members and activists something about the importance of money. If young people start to invest wisely and sustainably at the age of say 22, after graduation, they can build up capital that can make an incredible difference in the world. I haven’t looked at any numbers, and don’t know if any are available, but my suspicion is that many activists, across movements, are people who are not exactly well off. What if we were better off, and had more means to spend on our movement and our own happiness? What if we didn’t leave the making of money to the greedy people only. Money, though often abused, or considered an end, is nothing more than a tool. It’s a tool just like marketing is a tool. We can choose to abstain from using these tools, and leave the using of them in the hands of people who will often be likely to abuse them, or we can wield them ourselves and do some good with it.

PS: want to get more information on investing? The websites are endless, but I found this podcast really good.

Thinking about disrupting meat eaters at a restaurant? Read this first.

Activists disupting people's meal at Rare Steakhouse in Melbourne

Direct Action Everywhere (DxE) are the animal rights activists behind the attention-grabbing disruptions of meat eaters in restaurants. Their action in Rare Steakhouse in Melbourne Australia, on Jan. 30 2018, sure got a lot of headlines. Dozens of protesters went into the restaurant, chanting on megaphones and holding posters with pictures of suffering animals. Some vegans applaud these tactics and participate in them, others call them cringeworthy. Here are some thoughts.

Activists disupting people's meal at Rare Steakhouse in Melbourne
Activists disupting people’s meal at Rare Steakhouse in Melbourne

Two reasons to start the revolution
I can imagine that people take to these in-your-face tactics for two entirely different reasons. Reason number one could be that, with all the animal suffering and killing, vegans feel frustrated and want to speed things up. I sure can understand that people feel change is too slow.
The other reason seems almost like the opposite of the first: we’ve seen a lot of news coverage in the last two years or so that testifies to the growing popularity of plant-based eating: vegan startups doing really great (sometimes with investments from the meat industry), new vegan products being sold out as soon as they show up, celebrities going vegan, spectacular-sounding growth in the number of vegans, and so on. I presume that information like this may embolden some vegans and lead them to think that the time is ripe for action of this sort. The revolution is upon us!

My belief is that neither the ongoing suffering of the animals and our resultant frustration, nor the good news and our optimism, should inspire us, at this moment, to organize actions like restaurant disruptions. I’m not talking about direct action tactics in general. Indeed, I have no problem with these when they are well targeted (see below). But, I think in this case, the action is misguided and misdirected.

“Don’t tell people they are wrong”
In what follows, I’ll be paraphrasing a lot from a session at the Aspen Ideas Festival 2017, titled To persuade others, pay attention to their values. Panelists were Matthew Feinberg, professor of organizational behavior at the University of Toronto, and Rob Willer, professor of sociology and psychology at Stanford.* The session is worth listening to in its entirety, but at one point, the moderator asks the researchers if they can give some advice on what not to do when you want to change someone’s mind.

The first thing Feinberg and Willer come up with, based on their extensive research, is: do not tell others that their values or their morals are wrong – unless you want to create an argument rather than persuade them. One’s moral values are so much part of one’s identity that to have them challenged very much constitutes a threat or reproach. People usually react defensively when threatened – in the moral domain, this is called “moral reactance”. I’ve previously written about one form that this reactance may take: do-gooder derogation, or the putting down of the one who does something good. The biggest problem with this is not that activists are ridiculed or judged negatively, but rather the fact that because of this reactance, people will be even less likely to change. (One tentative indication that this reactance took place in Melbourne may be found in the fact that the restaurant’s social media following has increased significantly as a result of this incident.)

So, what do these guys suggest as a solution? They suggest trying to reframe the issue in terms of values that your audience cares about. I’ll write about that in another post.

“Don’t engage in extreme behaviors”
The second thing the panelists recommend that activists shouldn’t do is to engage in extreme behaviors. What the researchers found in terms of a lot of protests and other activism is that the more extreme the tactic is, the more likely it is to turn people off. Feinberg and Willer here identify a paradox: if you want attention for your cause, you need the media. But, the behavior that the media is most likely to pick up on is the extreme behavior that is most likely to turn off the average reader or viewer, who, as a result, will be less likely to support your cause. The researchers add that, interestingly, activists who are themselves involved in these extreme behaviors, when polled, indicate that they find these tactics effective, not just for getting people’s attention (which they are correct in), but also for persuading people – (which they are not correct in).

(Side note: many vegans outside of DxE seem to believe, like me, that these tactics are not effective – and this difference of opinion within the vegan community seems to be, in and of itself, an interesting topic for the media.)

On the Facebook page of Melbourne Cow Save – who I’m assuming co-organized the restaurant protest – we can read: “This action wasn’t about educating people about veganism. It was about taking non-violent direct action to end the exploitation and killing of all animals. It was to force animal rights into the public consciousness through non-violent direct action”.
Yes, they were definitely able to get their message out there and get people talking. But is that necessarily a good thing? Getting an issue into public consciousness is not the same as changing that consciousness (and consequently, in the best case, the behavior). There certainly is value in raising awareness and helping to make a cause the topic of conversation, but if it is done in a way that mainly causes moral reactance, it’s probably far from ideal.

Cows aren’t puppies
I believe one of the mistakes DxE people are likely to make is to have too much confidence in the parallels between their cause and other social justice movements. They often refer to the non-violent civil disobedience and direct action organized by Martin Luther King or Gandhi, claiming – rightly, I think – that these tactics were instrumental in bringing about the desired change.

While I do not deny that there may be important lessons to be drawn from other social justice movements, we need to be mindful of the fact that the animal movement is not in the same phase at this time as the civil rights movement was when people used these tactics to advocate for an end to racial discrimination. We need to keep in mind where our movement is in terms of the level of public support for our cause. I can imagine that this kind of direct action would go over much better, and have a bigger impact, if it were about something on which most people agreed with the protesters. An DxE activist is actually quoted as saying, “If they [the restaurant] were selling the bodies of dead puppies in that place and we disrupted it, we’d be hailed as heroes.” Well yes, probably, but whether vegans see a difference or not between cows and puppies, the audience at large does.

It’s good to meet the audience where they’re at, and not expect them to have our values or adopt those values on the spot. For example, disrupting a restaurant where puppies are being eaten would be very effective in a Western country where most people share the value that dogs are companions, not food. However, in some parts of the world, eating dogs isn’t seen in the same way, and, therefore, a disruption would not be nearly as effective. Meanwhile, disrupting people eating beef in a country like India, where commonly held views on cows are very different from those in Western countries, may actually be effective.

Let’s give people no excuse not to listen
So, no, these activists, as the spokesperson realizes, will not be seen as heroes. The fact that this matters is not an ego concern, and undoubtedly, the protesters have no problem not being liked. Indeed, to some extent, they may actually welcome being considered a pain in the butt. But, we vegans are still a tiny group who can still use – indeed, require – much more support than we currently have. We need to do things that enlarge the support we get, rather than alienating potential allies. Even though things seem to be getting better, as vegans, we are still fighting an uphill battle against stigmatization, against people believing we are all kinds of things: crazy, angry, negative, preaching, never satisfied. We should not feed or confirm these perceptions (which are sometimes true, but most often not), and we should certainly not give people any excuse not to listen to us.

Potential benefits
Having said all this, let me try to be the most charitable I can be – of course, my heart is with these activists – and play the devil’s advocate for a moment. Let’s see if we can come up with arguments in favor of such restaurant disruptions and other radical tactics.

  • Maybe such tactics make more moderate animal rights activists and other vegans seem more approachable and rational when compared to this so-called radical element (this is the so-called “radical flank effect), and that could be a good thing. However, it’s equally possible that many people who still believe it’s acceptable to eat animal products will continue to equate the less radical parts with the radical part and, thus, consider all vegans as radical or extreme. It’s not true, and not right, but it’s all too human.
  • One good thing I can see about DxE (and also about some other forms of street activism) is that it seems to attract and recruit a lot of activists. Vegans who until then had been passive, get fired up seeing DxE demos and become activists (see the explanation for the pull of this further down this post). And, being an activist (i.e., doing something more for the animals than just not eating them), is important. But, of course, if we have serious doubts about whether at least these DxE actions have a positive impact, more people participating in them wouldn’t necessarily be a good thing. If there is a discrepancy between actions that attract activists and those which are effective, then it seems to me we should see if we can attract new activists with these maybe not ideal actions, and then try to move them towards more effective forms of activism, maybe organized by the same group.
  • I will also grant that there is a lot of uncertainty about what works, what works better and what doesn’t work. Often, it is not easy at all to measure the impact of certain forms of activism. Defenders of DxE tactics will say that even if people react very negatively to the protests at first, the protests might plant seeds, and these seeds may later sprout and change people’s minds. I consider that possible, though given the significant risk of alienating potential allies by these actions, the burden of proof that these actions are effective should be on DxE.
  • Finally, I’m quite open to the idea that some day restaurant disruptions like this could be quite effective, even though I personally may never like how they feel. I can imagine that in a world where we have most people on our side, it can be helpful to give the laggards the feeling that they are, well… lagging. But, that time is not now.

The warm glow of group solidarity
One other advantage these actions can offer – although they are not the only type of action to do so – is to give activists energy and a sense of belonging, as well as increasing group cohesion. Let me bring in Feinberg and Willer one last time. When they’re asked about what people get from coming together with others that share their values, this is their answer  – and I think it will speak to a lot of vegans:

“You get a lot of things out of binding together with morally similar others and expressing moral judgments about the same things that you think are wrong and should be condemned, and finding togetherness and praising things you think are morally praiseworthy. You can develop a sense of morally-based group solidarity, which is a powerful thing. (…) It’s a great feeling when you join together with like-minded others and find yourself celebrating this commonality that goes all the way down to the depths of your convictions. People’s values are their deepest held beliefs, by definition. They’re willing to fight and die to defend their values. And so, when you can come together with other people and celebrate these values and share them, and discriminate between yourselves and those who don’t hold those values, that can be a powerfully transcending experience and generate strong feelings of trust within the group. It’s not strange and it’s not objectionable that people do that, that they are pulled to that sort of thing.

It is, indeed, not wrong or objectionable to go for these feelings, and especially in a world where few people agree with us, it is normal that we seek out the confirmation of like minded-people. But we should be careful that the warm glow we get from doing activism does not blind us to the actual impact of our actions.

We must be careful, in other words, not to confuse feeling good and doing good.

 

Want to read more about vegan strategy and communication? Check out my book How to Create a Vegan World.

 

* Even though I’m quoting from a podcast and obviously one person was always speaking at one time, I will quote as Feinberg and Willer, because I couldn’t distinguish between the voices on the podcast.

Vegan advocacy: Unapologetic or pragmatic?

opposing views on vegan advocacy

On Jan 28 2017, I did a Facebook live discussion with Casey Taft on the topic of vegan advocacy. Casey is the founder of Vegan Publishers, author of Motivational methods for vegan advocacy: A clinical psychology perspective, and is a professor of psychiatry at Boston University School of Medicine.
In terms of vegan advocacy, Casey feels that promoting a clear vegan end goal is the best way to bring about both reduction and cessation of animal use and that we should be careful not to promote the very thing (speciesism) that is the biggest contributor to our animal use in the first place. I, on the other hand, believe that while there’s a place for this approach, it is not what is most needed at this moment in time. I maintain that asking people to reduce their consumption of animal products is helpful to create a vegan world, and is not a betrayal of vegan principles or of the animals. This post is part summary, part observation of the discussion we had. Throughout the text I will link to related blogposts I wrote previously.

opposing views on vegan advocacy

A civil discussion across the aisles
First of all, in spite of our different viewpoints, the discussion between Casey and me was friendly and civilized, and I found in Casey a respectful critic of my views. When I accepted Casey’s suggestion to talk, this for me was my first objective: to have a constructive discussion “across the aisles”. On the meta-level, I am very interested in how people with very different opinions can still have civil conversations (this is a bit like one of Sam Harris’s stated goals for his Waking Up podcast). Due to our different experiences, different upbringing, different genetic makeup, we are bound to experience the world differently and to have different opinions about many things. I believe one of the main conditions to create a better world is that we are able to discuss these differences. When we meet people who have different opinions, it is important to be charitable to each other, and to start with trusting that the other person has good intentions. So, I’m thankful that Casey and I were able to do that.

Points of agreement
Though our viewpoints are quite different, it isn’t that Casey and I are at loggerheads about every issue or aspect of vegan advocacy. Reading his book in preparation for our discussion, I found myself agreeing with quite a few things: obviously, the abolitionist aim, but also the idea that ultimately people need to see what we do to animals as an issue of social justice. I agree with him about the importance of respectful yet assertive conversation, and with reinforcing positive behavior rather than punishing undesirable behavior. I appreciate that he wants to build a bigger tent by including demographics that have largely  been excluded from vegan advocacy. I share his stance against misanthropy. I agree that we don’t have enough research to say too many things with too high a degree of certainty.

A pragmatic approach
The main difference between our approaches is that Casey believes that we should never advocate for anything less than veganism, and that when we do that, we are betraying the animals, as well as our beliefs and that we may be actively undermining the case for veganism. I, on the other hand, believe that there is, so to speak, no moral obligation to always and everywhere present veganism as a moral obligation. If there’s any obligation, it is to do what works.

It is important to emphasize that the strategy I suggest – on this blog, in my talks and most elaborately in my book How to Create a Vegan World  is not meant as the only strategy that should replace all others. Rather, it is a complementary, but – I think – necessary strategy. I believe that in this I differ from many “abolitionists” who believe there is only one right way to advocate for veganism, and who consider anything less than that as an aberration that is at the same time ineffective and unethical. It’s equally important to emphasize that I do believe in the same goal: the idea that we should stop using animals for human purposes and should minimize animal suffering.

My view, very briefly, is that getting a lot of people to reduce is easier than getting a lot of vegans, and that, therefore, this is the fastest way to tip the system: a lot of reducers are what has been and is driving demand for plant-based products. A higher demand (coming from these reducers especially) obviously leads to a higher supply of good alternatives. Thanks to more alternatives, it becomes easier and easier for everyone to shift towards more plant based eating (see What vegan can learn from glutenfree) and to be open to animal rights arguments. I emphasize that, apart from trying to influence people’s attitude in the hope that people will change their behavior, we also need to help people change their behavior first (eating plant based to whatever degree, for whatever reason), so that they will more easily open their hearts and minds to the horrible situation animals are in. An example of this is also health conscious vegans who evolve into ethical vegans.

Where you stand depends on where you sit. We are presently so invested in using animals, both on the individual and societal/economic levels, that it is very hard to start thinking differently about eating animals. (The shortest introduction to my views is this video.)

If we agree that a critical mass of reducers is important, it is also important to see which arguments convince people to reduce their consumption of animal products. Health and environment seem to be effective arguments in this context; so, we should use them.

Does pragmatism = betrayal?
Now, Casey and others may agree that all of this may very well be true, but that for us vegans to advocate for reduction is to implicitly condone the eating of animals, and to downplay the social justice issue that is veganism or animal rights. One of the arguments that is often used to support this claim is to say that we wouldn’t be doing this in the case of humans. We wouldn’t advocate for a reduction of slavery, a reduction of domestic abuse, a regulation of child abuse; we would call for it to stop.

This argument sounds very elegant at first sight, but I believe it is very much off the mark. I have written about this previously (see On comparing animal rights with other social justice issues and Slavery Free Mondays, but basically, comparing, for example, child abuse or wife-beating with eating animal products, is comparing something that 99 percent of the people abhor and agree to ban entirely with something that almost as many people not just condone but actually celebrate.

Advocates of Casey’s view may then reply: but it doesn’t matter what people think about these issues; what matters is that we can compare human and non-human animals and that we are right to do so. Well, I believe that if we want to carve out a successful approach to stop people from doing something, we really do need to take into account where society is, not just where we are. Comparing eating animal products to beating one’s wife will often be ineffective, and people may feel very accused and morally reproached (alienating feelings usually will not lead to change).

Moreover, if you really believe that these issues are (almost) identical, then what about this: what would you do if you saw a man beating up his wife, or a child, or if you were witnessing someone buying a slave? If you had the power, you’d stop it, right? So, given that these issues are allegedly comparable, are you then morally obligated to do the same when you see people buying meat in a supermarket, or preparing it in their kitchen? Should you grab the meat out of their hands, or physically prevent them from buying or cooking meat? I don’t think so. The analogy, as analogies go, may not be perfect, but I think this shows that even us vegans think about these situations and issues as different. Similarly, while I appreciate Casey’s experience and everything he does for both animals and domestic violence victims (and abusers), I believe it’s problematic to compare the treatment of domestic abusers with the treatment of non-vegans. For example, Casey writes that most of the abusers he treats are ordered by courts to see him, which is indicative of the difference in itself.

I used to advocate like Casey does, from a “moral baseline” position. I changed my mind and my approach after years of advocating and campaigning. The main thing for me is not to be consistent with my ideology or theory, but to be consistent with results. If something gets good results, I will go for it. I will feel true to myself and my beliefs, even if, according to some, my approach is not in line with vegan orthodoxy (see also: Veganism: ideology versus results).

Research on effectiveness
Another point where I differ with Casey is in our opinions about the research that is being carried out by organizations like ACE (Animal Charity Evaluators), Faunalytics (formerly the Humane Research Council) and others. Casey has called their research pseudoscience and has written how their studies do not follow basic principles of science. While I do appreciate that, from his experience as a professor in clinical psychology with a lot of practical experience, Casey may bring a lot of interesting points to the table, I’m sure he too realizes that he’s not the only expert. I will not go into detail about the studies in question, but I’ll just make some general comments on this topic.

Like I said, I agree that we have not been able to do enough research to state many things with a very high degree of certainty. Note that this doesn’t mean we don’t have anything at this point. Plus, there is also a lot we can derive from more general research in the fields such as psychology, marketing and sociology. There is also common sense, and our combined experiences – even though we have to be careful with all these sources of data and knowledge. In any case, I’m very happy that there is more and more money being granted to and invested in research.

Casey seems to have a high distrust of the findings of the research (mainly done by the above mentioned groups) so far, one reason for that being – if I understood or interpreted him correctly – that the (preliminary) results often seem to point in the direction of support of incremental asks. Casey relies on theories and his own experience that according to him point in different directions, based on psychological theories and research, such as goal setting theory and the Transtheoretical Model (Stages of Change). He does not believe the findings of work in those areas suggest incremental asks are most effective, and that, in the case of Faunalytics and others, the data have been interpreted in a biased way to confirm the researchers’ original (incrementalist) views. Casey is mainly talking here about the Faunalytics study on former vegetarians and vegans. Che Green from Faunalytics has responded in the comment section on this article by Casey. I disagree with the conclusions Casey draws from the research – see What can we learn on research from ex-vegetarians?

I think in all of this it is useful to ask: what is it that could change our minds? My impression is that some people – I’m not necessarily saying Casey here – will not accept any evidence, because accepting it runs counter to their theories. There is, in other words, no way to falsify one’s conclusions (which is indicative of an unscientific attitude).

Personally, I don’t feel too much distrust towards the research done by groups like ACE and Faunalytics. Their studies were conducted with the specific aim to find out what works, and they have no interest whatsoever in fooling themselves. Even though we would be wise to remain critical (as with everything), I like to assume that people working on research in support of vegan advocacy would do their utmost best to avoid flawed methodologies and thus flawed results.

Big groups and money
I equally don’t share Casey’s distrust of “big groups”. It is definitely possible that big organizations go astray and sometimes are just raising money to fund their own continued existence, without doing all that much for the causes they advocate. However, there is obviously no reason to think that this is always or even usually the case. If a good organization is able to raise a lot of money, that is a good thing. Big organizations need funds to pay their staff and, therefore, need to fundraise. The more staff hours a group can devote to liberating animals, the more animals will be helped (no, it’s not going to be all done by volunteers). Money is a necessary resource not just to free up more working time, but also to do outreach. If we use money well, then the more money we can collect from people, companies and governments (often siphoning it away from other, more neutral or less noble, uses – see Money money money in our movement).

Reconciling different views
Casey and I finished our discussion by looking at what we can do to get along better and to reconcile these sometimes opposing viewpoints. Here are some ideas:

  • I talked about what I started this post with: trust. We have to be able to trust that all of us have the same good intentions (even though none of us is entirely pure in their intentions – we are humans, not saints). (see also: Can abolitionists and pragmatists ever trust each other?)
  • We also need to keep an open mind and be ready to change it. And, we need to practice what I call slow opinion.
  • While some approaches are definitely better than others and not all strategies are created equal, as long as we don’t know entirely what works best, strategic pluralism and experimenting with different approaches is (to a certain extent) a good thing.
  • It’s possible that different approaches can best be applied in different contexts. An “unapologetic” go vegan approach may be useful in one to one conversations where we see that the person is open-minded, while incremental, pragmatic approaches may do much better in the case of trying to create institutional change. Indeed, trying to change individuals (often done by individual advocates and grassroots groups) is quite different from advocating for institutional change (usually done by bigger, more professional groups). Similarly, approaching politicians with a health or environmental message will often be more effective than approaching them with an animal rights or “unapologetically” vegan message. Understanding these contextual differences may make us more tolerant of approaches that we usually don’t follow. (See also: Vegan activism: the difference between individuals and groups).
  • What is effective is also very much a matter of the factor time. Things that may not work (or not work optimally) today, may very well work (or work much better) in ten or twenty years time. I believe right now is a time for a mainly pragmatic approach, and that as time goes by and people become less and less dependent on animal products, an unapologetic approach will be more and more productive. (see also: The right strategy at the right time)

Again, despite our differences, I appreciate the work that Casey is doing, and I appreciate the fact that we had a constructive discussion.

You can watch the whole discussion (70 minutes) here.

Is clean meat the animals’ best hope? An interview with Paul Shapiro 

paul shapiroI have known Paul Shapiro since he ran Compassion Over Killing in Washington DC, together with his wonderful three legged dog, George. From that position, Paul went on to be a Humane Society of the United States spokesperson and vice president for thirteen years. Just this month (Jan. 2018), Paul came out with his first book: Clean Meat. How Growing Meat without Animals will Revolutionize Dinner and the World. In it, Paul chronicles some of the key people, companies, and technologies behind clean meat, or the idea of creating animal products directly from animal cells, without live animals. Paul provides the reader with a fascinating inside view of the startups that have been popping up in our social media feeds in the last few years: companies like Memphis Meats, Hampton Creek, Modern Meadow, Clara Foods, Mosa Meats, Geltor, or Perfect Day, who are all hurrying to bring products to market that might just mean the beginning of the end of animal consumption.
I talked with Paul about his hopes for clean meat, and asked for his answers to some common objections to the idea of eating meat without animals.

Vegan Strategist: Paul, your book got me even more excited about the possibilities of clean meat (not to say clean milk and clean eggs). First of all: what are you most excited about?
Paul Shapiro: I’m excited about it all, but, in all honesty, what would excite me the most would be a greater focus (in both plant-based meats and clean meats) on poultry and fish. The success of alternative milks and burgers is stellar, but even 100% displacement of those categories would affect less than 1% of farmed animals in the US. Statistically speaking, virtually all farmed animals are birds and fishes, so we need more replacement products for them. Fortunately, many of these startups are working on clean chicken, while Finless Foods is developing clean fish, too.

What in your opinion is the most critical factor for clean meat to succeed?
Not enough people buying this book! Just kidding. Seriously, there are key hurdles, from consumer acceptance to government regulation to technological barriers that could hinder the success of these start-ups. That said, every one of these companies is optimistic about overcoming such hurdles, and I outline why they feel that way in the book.

One of these technological barriers is the serum that is used to make the animal cells grow. Traditionally, this has been bovine serum. How are the alternatives coming along?
What we call acellular ag companies (those making milk, egg whites, leather, and gelatin) don’t need any bovine serum (or any other animal ingredients) at all. But the meat companies still use bovine serum for some meats, though not for others. They all know they can’t commercialize their products with that serum, both for financial and ethical reasons. The good news is that they’ve found non-animal alternatives to bovine serum that work (in fact, Memphis Meats’ Nick Genovese even published his serum-free recipe already), but the key is to find the most economical alternatives that will still cause the cells to grow into muscle quickly.

Assuming we can get past the technological hurdles: how easy or hard will it be to get governmental approval to bring these products to market?
That depends on the country and on the product. The path for the acellular ag companies seems a bit clearer, since there are already similar products on the market now. For instance, the rennet in nearly all hard cheeses sold in the US is produced through the same kind of synthetic biology which companies like Perfect Day, Geltor, and Clara Foods are using.

There are some really smart people, like Pat Brown of Impossible Foods, who still think clean meat is an unfeasible and stupid idea. The organization Givewell, as late as 2015, was not recommending investing in or donating to clean meat. Could they be right?
Sure, they could be right. I, of course, hope they’re not, and I also look at what experts in the meat industry think. Cargill has already invested in Memphis Meats. A major German poultry company just invested in SuperMeat. I presume they know what they’re doing. But there’s nothing inevitable or self-executing about the success of clean meat.

Some people – vegans especially – will say that we already have enough plant-based alternatives, which are getting better and better, and that we don’t have any need for clean meat.
If plant-based meats explode in popularity and make clean meat unnecessary, all of the clean meat companies will be thrilled, as would I. I love plant-based meats and tout them all the time. But many people profess to be wedded to actual animal meat. For them, clean meat could be a solution.
The problem of factory farming is just so severe that you want multiple solutions. Just as with the problem of fossil fuels, you don’t want just one alternative, like wind. You also want solar, geothermal, and more. Similarly, plant-based meats are a great solution to the factory farming problem, but you also want other alternatives, including clean meat, and, of course, whole foods plant-based diets, too.

clean meat book

There seems to be a big food trend in the direction of more authentic, more simple, more artisanal food. That doesn’t seem very compatible with clean meat, at first sight.
The key isn’t to get people who like “natural foods” to eat clean meat; it’s to get mainstream meat-eaters (which is nearly everyone) to eat it. And really, the current way we produce meat is so unnatural that growing it seems like a naturally preferable option. I might also point out how technology has helped us on a lot of other food sustainability issues. Take vanilla as one example: only about 1% of vanilla that we eat is “natural” vanilla, which is grown in rainforests. The rest is produced synthetically, allowing us to have the same vanilla taste and scent we crave for much lower costs.

What would you tell vegans who are critical of clean meat?
Well, clean meat is meant, in the first place, for mainstream meat-eaters, meaning nearly everyone. Some vegans will be fine eating it, but the surveys show that the less meat you eat now, the less interest you have in eating clean meat.
No one argues that clean meat is a panacea or that it addresses every single concern about meat. It is quite plausible though that it may spare billions of animals from torture and slaughter. All that said, sometimes as vegans we delude ourselves into thinking that the foods we eat don’t cause any animal suffering. For those who think that, I’d recommend becoming more familiar with commercial agriculture practices, including for the plant-based foods we vegans love.

It seems that in the evolution towards a better world for animals, business and entrepreneurship are getting more and more important compared to activism/advocacy. What’s your take on that?
I totally agree, and recommend this good essay by my friend Seth Goldman, executive chairman of Beyond Meat, on the topic. This is a big reason I wrote the book and am now moving away from conventional animal advocacy and toward food tech as a way to help animals. The animal advocacy movement can do a lot of good, yet I’ve increasingly come to the view that food technology is desperately needed to greatly accelerate the shift away from the factory farming of animals. Horses weren’t liberated from labor by humane sentiment; Henry Ford liberated them. Whales weren’t freed from harpoons by humane sentiment; kerosene helped render whale oil obsolete. Will clean meat and plant-based meats help do the same for farm animals? These questions are the driving factors for me to move my career more into the food tech space.

And you’re not the only one. The stories of the “business activists” in your book are fascinating and inspiring.
Yes. And it’s helpful to recall that these people are just people. They’re mere mortals like the rest of us. Many of them are young idealists who haven’t come to believe yet that they can’t change the world. And, as the saying goes, those who complain that they can’t change the world should get out of the way of those who are doing it.

How do you feel about big meat companies getting involved in this?
The faster meat companies become the purveyors of plant-based meats and clean meats, the faster animals will win. Fortunately, it’s already starting to happen.

What would you say to people who bring up anti-capitalist arguments?
I hear that argument and respect those who make it. But if animals must wait until the end of capitalism to be freed from factory farms, they’re going to be waiting a long time.

Apparently Hampton Creek’s foie gras might be the first product to reach the market?
Totally possible. It would be quite a story: the only foie gras that can be legally sold in California. It’d be quack-tastic!

What can your average vegan or vegan advocate do in this story? How can they help?
It’s a small but growing field! If you want to pursue a career in cellular ag, this page may be useful. If you’ve got an idea for a company and want advice about getting started, the Good Food Institute is the place to go. (It’s actually a great place to go for much more than that, too.) And, if you just want to be supportive, of course, touting the benefits of cellular ag and the start-ups profiled in the book on social media would helpful, too. They could use the support!

To learn more about Paul’s fascinating book, go to www.cleanmeat.com. To know more about Paul, visit www.paul-shapiro.com

Empathy means understanding that some people have less of it

When I was a young boy, my parents kept chickens in the garden. Not for the eggs, but for slaughter. We had about thirty per year. My father raised them, and at the end of their short lives brought them to a slaughterer, who finished the job. After that, they’d land in our freezer and later ended up on our plates. It was my parents’ way to eat “better” meat, healthier especially.

From a young age, I empathized with these chickens. Now and then, there were weak or wounded ones among them. These often got pecked on by their fellows. I used to take care of them. I took a cardboard box, put straw, water and feed in it, and put it inside the house, next to the stove, where the animal would be warm, and hoped the chicken would get better. Sometimes they did, sometimes they didn’t.

We also had a few goats. This wasn’t for cheese or anything, but because my brother had wanted them. I liked those goats. One night, I dreamed (or thought I dreamed) of a goat crying. I just slept on, thinking it wasn’t real. The next morning, I heard that one of the goats had fallen in the pond, and hadn’t been able to climb back out. I cried my eyes out after hearing that, and I still feel bad about it (maybe I could have realized it wasn’t a dream, I could have gotten up).

Recently, I was sitting on a subway train, and a homeless or poor person was asking for money. In front of me were two women, each of them briefly looking at the man. On the one woman’s face, I saw (or thought I saw) indifference. On the other woman’s face, I saw empathy and compassion. I felt so much sympathy for the latter woman, and remember thinking: “You care, that’s so beautiful.” I was moved. But, my next thought was: who or what was it that made her into a caring person? Was it a decision she made herself? And, if so, what gave her the power to make that decision? Regarding the other woman (if my perception was correct), was it her own fault that she didn’t care or cared less? I felt that each one of these people was a product of their upbringing, their environment, their genes.

Empathy for animals came to me from a very young age. I purposely wrote “came to me”. I didn’t look it up. I didn’t decide to have empathy for animals. I was six or something, and it was already there.
Some people have less of it than I have, some have more. I don’t know why I had or have the amount of empathy I do (or for that matter, the amount of will or discipline to put that empathy into practise). Maybe everyone is born with empathy, but we need to be lucky to have people around us who cherish and nurture it, rather than telling us we don’t need to have it.

I haven’t made up my mind about how much free will we have, but in any case, I believe that the control we have, about who we are, what we believe, and even what we do, is limited. I’m sure that empathy is, to some extent, teachable, and surely we can influence other people, help them to be better, through our educating efforts.

But having empathy also means we need to understand that, maybe through no fault of their own, some people start out with less of it.