This is the time of the year when organizations receive the biggest part of their donations from their sympathizers and supporters. It’s the time when we all can help them to further our common goals.
I’ve written before about the importance of money, and theimportance of organizations. Campaigning for animals – or for any other cause – can be done at a grassroots or volunteer level, and that’s awesome. But we also need bigger organizations to make a difference. They need to pay their staff; they rely on the work of experts; they need to finance advertisements to get the word out, etc. The more money they have, the better.
Many people are cynical about donating, believing (or often using as an excuse) that their money won’t actually be used for anything good, but will get stuck along the way and just pay overhead, or pay for bloated organizations. There is undoubtedly some loss, and there are inefficient organizations out there, but there also many great ones, where people work their asses off to make a difference, and where the leaders think strategically, in terms of generating as much impact as possible.
Effective Altruism, a young movement and philosophy, is about identifying the best causes, organizations and interventions, and donating to (or volunteering or working for) these. Within the Effective Altruism movement, there are meta-organizations (see below) that do research about who and what works best. The recommendations these meta-organizations come up with are our best leads for making effective, life-changing donations.
Comparing good causes and organizations should not be a taboo. When we buy a computer, we make an investment in something that we expect works. The same goes for our donations: we want to make good investments. Indeed, if there is any domain where we should insist on great return on investment, it’s the domain of decreasing suffering and saving lives.
Here are some criteria that people who identify as “effective altruists” use to choose the causes and organizations they support:
when choosing a cause, look at the amount of victims and at the intensity of their suffering. Malaria, for instance, kills more people than rare neurological diseases. And some problems are more horrible than others.
look at the need for funding and the added value of your donation. A lot of money was collected for the disease ALS with the incredibly successful Ice Bucket Challenge. Maybe it’s time to donate to something else…
give to organizations working for or in poorer countries, where your money can have a lot more impact because costs are lower there.
From an Effective Altruism viewpoint, farmed animals are a great cause to give to. Not only are there a huge number of farmed animals who are suffering immensely, but also this cause is very neglected. Of all the money from US donations, only 1.5 percent goes to animals, and of that tiny bit, only 1 percent goes to farmed animals. So, farmed animals get 0,015% of donations in the US.
Lastly, when you give, let it be known. We put a lot of stuff on our Facebook walls that may be giving people a laugh, but we’re often shy about sharing our good deeds, because we think that’s not done. But people take their cues for what is good behavior from other people. When they see many people around them who donate, they will be more inclined to donate themselves. Conversely, when they don’t see that behavior, they will think it’s fine not to donate. So, when you donate, tell other people about it, to help normalize giving. To set an example, I yearly give away ten percent of my income, which amounts to 2500 euro. This year, I gave, among others, to Give Directly and The Good Food Institute. I just posted that on Facebook. It’s a bit hard, because you open yourself up to the criticism that you want to show how good you are. But as you understand, it’s not about that.
Maybe you don’t have any money to donate, and you do volunteer work. That’s great. And, maybe you don’t have time, but you do have some money. That’s great too, because with your money, you’re paying for other people to invest time in making the world a better place.
Vegans often talk about how non-vegansshut themselves off from animal suffering. Those non-vegans know – it is assumed – certain facts about animals, but choose to block them out. When they have a chance to find something out about animal suffering (like watching a YouTube video), they often won’t take the opportunity because they’re afraid they won’t like what they see.
I think all of this is often wrongly interpreted as indifference. It is exactly because most people are not indifferent to suffering that they will try to turn away and try not to feel what’s going on. When they don’t want to know, they are, of course, also choosing for their own convenience: they want to avoid having to change and losing their piece of meat. But the fact that they believe they should change something, and therefore avoid the confrontation, indicates, in itself, that they care, on some level.
This avoidance and turning away is a pity, of course, but maybe rather than being too judgmental about this behavior, it might be good to realize that all of us do it, all the time, to some extent. Whether we are vegan or non-vegan, at some point we all need to say no, close our ears and our eyes and even our hearts. Otherwise, life is, unfortunately, not livable.
Let me illustrate this with a situation from my own life. Apart from her job in a veg organization, my girlfriend rescues cats. We have six rescued cats and two dogs living permanently in our home, but apart from these animals, there’s always a variable amount of cats “in transition”, waiting for another home. They were picked up from the street, abandoned by their “owners”, or whatnot.
Whenever my girlfriend gets notified about animals in need – they might be sick, blind, full of fleas or other parasites, etc. – she tries to find a solution (bulk nitenpyram) . She’ll be on Facebook and email to find temporary housing for the animal, so that he or she can heal, be sterilized and vaccinated, before a forever home is found.
There seem to be, however, always more animals in need than people to care for them. So open goes our own door, and yet another animal comes in. Yes, there may be room for one more. And one more. And one more. But at some point, there’s a limit. At some point, we have to say no. And even if my girlfriend manages to find some kind of a solution most of the time, we know that there are cats out there who are suffering and need care. It doesn’t stop at cats, by the way. She gets calls about all kinds of animals.
Because of course, there are many more animals out there, other than cats, that we could help. Many animal advocates get bombarded with notifications and pleas and pictures and petitions about animals who need our attention or our donation. And it never stops.
Obviously we can go beyond animals: there’s a refugee crisis in Europe and most people reading this probably have the opportunity to create some room in their homes to temporarily house one or more refugees. But hardly anyone (including me) does that. Likewise, we all could give more money to help these people, or to other causes that we deem worthy and effective, but there’s always a limit we set to our donations (and for most people it’s a rather low one).
Of course, saying that there is always a limit, and that all of us turn away or close our hearts at some point, doesn’t mean we need to do nothing. I agree that some things require less personal effort than others. Going vegan is, at least after awhile, probably easier than giving away significant donations every year (though we can ask the question about whether it is as effective). But the thing is, we can always find people who are doing more than others: people who are more vegan, who rescue and feed more animals, who donate more.
In this world where there is so much suffering, it’s hard to do enough. Doing your best is maybe never really your best, because you can always do better. We can spend more money on good causes, and watch less Netflix, and help more.
But of course, reasoning like this, and experiencing the world like this, is no way to live. It is a recipe for burnout and depression. There will be huge and extreme suffering for quite some time on this planet (I’m an optimist, I don’t believe it necessarily needs to be here forever), so those of us who are really sensitive to it, need to find a way to deal with it.
So maybe some takeaways from these rambling thoughts:
rather than labeling others as indifferent, we can remember that turning away is a matter of degree and that we all do it
we can set an example for others to follow, and help “normalize” doing good
as the suffering is endless right now and our resources are insufficient, it’s important to do good effectively. If you are not yet, familiarize yourself with the philosophy of Effective Altruism.
be sustainable in your activism. Know that you cannot avoid turning away now and then. Paradoxically, you are probably a better friend to the animals by not witnessing and worrying about their suffering all of the time.
At the Animal Rights conference in early July in Los Angeles, one of the keynote speakers was the legendary PETA founder Ingrid Newkirk. Ingrid and PETA are controversial for many animal rights activists and vegans. I understand some of the criticism, but usually I defend PETA against all too cheap attacks. I also respect Ingrid for her achievements. Being in a leadership position in the animal rights movement, (as a woman, moreover), for such a long time is actually an achievement in itself.
Still, some of the things she said during her speech at the conference made me frown. Ingrid was clearly having an issue with people emphasizing effectiveness. Effectiveness isn’t hard to understand: when you’re effective, you are good at getting the results you are aiming for. Effectiveness in itself shouldn’t be controversial. If we invest a lot of efforts into helping animals, (no matter if you define the latter in terms of reducing suffering, cruelty, or killing), because we care about them, we want these efforts to be effective. We want them to actually make a difference.
When you want to be effective, you probably will want to figure out where you can help the most, where you have the biggest effect (or let’s at least say: “a big effect”). This is particularly important in light of our limited resources. Even though our movement seems to get more and more funds, we still obviously can’t do everything we want, and we need to make choices. A sensible strategic choice is to spend our time and money in places where we can have the biggest impact. This may be a factor of the return on investment (how many animals can I affect for how much money), the intensity of suffering, the number of beings suffering, or the difference we can make because no one else is doing it — to name a few important selection criteria.
Looking at it this way, within the animal rights movement, a focus on farmed animals makes a lot of sense: there is less money to help them than there is for more popular causes, like companion animals, wild animals, etc. Of all the animals we torture and kill, ninety nine percent are killed for food purposes. And their suffering in general is probably among the worst human-caused suffering in the animal world. So if we can change something for farm animals, like legislation, attitudes, alternatives… we are changing things for a big group of animals.
In her speech, if I heard her correctly, Ingrid Newkirk seemed to somehow disagree with this line of reasoning. She said she had been asked to talk about farmed animals, but indicated that she actually didn’t want to do that. Her slideshow was mostly about animals other than farmed animals — like individual circus or companion animals. She stated that, if PETA would have listened to the people who are into effectiveness, these animals would not have been saved.
The argument made by Ingrid and many others against effectiveness-seekers, is that animals are individuals and that we can not make calculations with them or just look at numbers.
However, when those of us who cherish effectiveness go after the big numbers, they do that exactly because animals are feeling, sentient individuals. When we talk about helping or prioritizing the sixty billion chickens in the world, this may sound like a statistic, but we are fully aware that we are talking about a collection of individuals. And if we value individuals, would a big group of such suffering individuals not be a higher priority than a smaller group? The more individuals we can help, the better, no? With limited resources, there is always what we call an “opportunity cost“: when we are doing one thing, we can’t do another.
I’m sure that there are some valid points to be made regarding prioritizing effectiveness. I’m sure some people might take it too far. There is the possibility that they could let the end justify spurious means. Or some of them may even be lacking in empathy. Effectiveness-oriented people would do well to be aware of these risks.
Nevertheless, it’s hard to argue with a desire, a striving for effectiveness. And it’s not as if all of a sudden, our whole movement has become effective. There is still a long way to go, and I think Ingrid’s criticism definitely didn’t come at the right time. Effectiveness might be a dirty word in health care and in other domains, but it shouldn’t be one in our movement.
No one is saying that the primate in the cage or the dog on the chain shouldn’t be helped. If some of us, however, would suggest prioritizing other beings, it’s not because we don’t care about those individuals. It’s because we care so much about suffering that we prefer to focus on where we can help the most of them.
In my humble opinion, being a highly effective vegan is not first and foremost a matter of being vegan up to the last micro-ingredient. Rather, it is about communicating in a way that opens the most hearts and minds to more compassionate eating and living. Here is my list of twelve habits for highly effective vegans.
1. Highly effective vegans can put themselves in the shoes of whomever they are talking to. They know that other people may be significantly different in many ways. They may have different interests and motivations, different ways to deal with changes and challenges. Therefore…
2. Highly effective vegans are adaptive. They can adapt the way they talk and what they talk about, according to their audience. They are not dogmatic in their approach. They know they are under no moral obligation to present veganism as a moral obligation.
3. Highly effective vegans encourage every step that people take. They know that change usually happens gradually. Therefore, highly effective vegans focus on the good things that people are already doing, rather than on the things they are not doing yet.
4. Highly effective vegans don’t care about purity. They know that both regarding themselves and others, focusing on purity is unproductive. They want to make being vegan look as accessible, easy and attractive as possible. They know that eating more compassionately is not an either or, black or white, now or never thing. They want to help people take the first step rather than the last.
5. Highly effective vegans don’t need to be “right.” Rather, they focus on what works. That’s why they are rarely debating or arguing. They know that in addition to providing arguments, they can also provide practical information, recipes, or a taste experience (i.e., they can cook for others).
6. Highly effective vegans know how to listen. They know that listening is essential to real communication. Highly effective vegans therefore also know to ask questions, and when to be quiet. They are friendly, and have a sense of humor. They know that the process of their conversations is often more important than the content.
7. Highly effective vegans do remember what it was like to be a non-vegan – they don’t suffer from vegan amnesia. They know that at some point they ate animal products and may even have been deaf themselves to the animal rights arguments, even when they were articulated clearly to them. Therefore, they are patient and understanding.
8. Highly effective vegans know that attitude change can come after behavior change. Therefore, they don’t mind when people start their vegan journey for health or for any reason.
9. Highly effective vegans are humble. They know they are not perfect. They know other people may do other great things, even if they are not vegan. And they know they don’t have all the answers.
10. Highly effective vegans have faith in people. They know most people want to do good, and don’t want animals to suffer. Highly effective vegans know that change is a matter of time. They realize that one important thing we have to do is to make it easier for people to act and eat compassionately, by providing more and better vegan options.
11. Highly effective vegans understand the crucial importance of good food. They applaud the development of new products, they learn how to cook, and they can inspire other people by telling them about how great they can eat as vegans.
12. Highly effective vegans don’t judge. They see veganism – like getting better at being human – as a journey rather than a destination, something that is never done, and can be started on many different roads.
I think most of us are attracted to the term speciesism. It seems such an elegant concept. And it’s a strong one. In many cases, when you use it correctly and cleverly, it’s a prety nice argument that makes sense. Especially when you talk to progressive minded people. They see that you have a point, and that there is an analogy with racism etc.
What is speciesism about? It’s about discrimination solely on the basis of species, just like racism is discrimination solely on the basis of “race”. I remember reading the following illustration or explanation of speciesism (I think it was in James Rachels’ Created form Animals). If you test cosmetics on the eyes of rabbits, you need to ask: why don’t we do this on people? The first answer would be: we don’t do this on people because people’s eyes would hurt. Then we ask: is this different in the case of rabbits? If no (if rabbits experience the same discomfort), then we are being speciesist if we test on rabbits but not on humans. The species, in this case, is the only reason for the difference, and that’s not right. If, on the other hand, we could say something like: because rabbits don’t experience pain in their eyes (which is not true), our acting wouldn’t be speciesist but would be inspired by a morally relevant criterium.
Like I said, I think that’s a good argument. The way I use it in discussions is that say: “If you do x to animals but not to people, you have to give me a morally relevant reason.”
I don’t think there are many good arguments against speciesism. Some people would suggest that people have a different moral standing, were created with souls, or whatever, but these things are not convincing to me.
Now, because speciesism is such an elegant concept, we tend to use it in all kinds of circumstances, and that is where, in my humble opinion, we may err. I’m talking (among other things) about where we apply the speciesism-argument to outreach and communication, within the animal rights movement.
I have heard it a thousand times, and every time I hear it, I inwardly sigh in furstration. The argument takes the same shape: you can’t do x regarding animals, because it would be immoral if we did it regarding people. In this case x is about a certain way of communication, a certain argument, a campaign… Again, it sounds good at first sight, but let me fill it in with some concrete examples…
When I recommend meat reduction or Meatless Mondays, I get to hear that that is speciesist, because we wouldn’t approve of something like Child Abuse Free Mondays in the case of humans.
When I recommend that we should encourage people when they have taken steps to reduce their meat consumption, some people will reply that’s speciesist because we wouldn’t praise a murderer or abuser who is presently murdering or abusing less people.
When I advocate that we should try to be gentle and sensible and patient etc when talking about animal suffering and veganism, I get to her that “people who are against rape and have been victims of rape should be able to educate people about rape and not be found annoying.”
Another quote in the same vein: “Would anyone advocate for the abolition, or the regulation, of child sex slavery? All of us would say it is our moral obligation to advocate for the absolute END of child sex slavery, and that “improvements” are wholly inadequate, and speciesist.”
I think you get the picture. In my humble opinion, the speciesist argument the way it is used in the above cases is false. We are in no way talking about the same things. We are talking about practises in society that are seen entirely, fundamentally different. If you want to keep saying that it is the same thing, you can of course say it, but it won’t be effective.
Moreover, if in our activism and outreach we should only say or advise things regarding animals that we also feel we can advise regarding humans, there would be a lot of stuff we shouldn’t say (which of course is exactly what a part of the animal rights movement believes). We couldn’t encourage or praise people for doing anything less than veganism; we couldn’t tell people to try out a vegan challenge like Veganuary (you can’t tell rapists to try to stop raping for a month!); we can’t just give leaflets to people in supermarkets because we wouldn’t give leaflets to rapists; we couldn’t support any government’s initiative to encourage people to eat less meat because a government wouldn’t encourage people to abuse children a bit less.
And so on, and so forth. The more of these examples I write down, the more absurd the argument gets. The deplorable thing is that all these recommendations that some people in the movement would not have us make, are the claims that psychological and sociological research shows work best: small steps, small wins, rather than big challenges.
As I have written before, you can be truthful to your own rules about what to say and what not (ignoring all the research, and no matter how many times you hit a wall), or you can look for what actually helps people be open and change.
Let’s use the term speciesism cleverly, in the right context.
Matt Ball is a long time activist. In 1993, he cofounded Vegan Outreach, and led the organization as Executive Director for more than 20 years. Today, he is Director of Outreach for Farm Sanctuary. He’s the author of several books on activism, and blogs at MattBall.net. As far as I’m concerned, he’s one of the most thoughtful voices and best strategic thinkers in our movement. There’s no getting around him on a strategy blog, so I interviewed him about purity, effectiveness, definitions and dogma in the vegan movement. Sit down and enjoy another longread.
VS: How would you define a vegan? A vegan diet?
MB: Before considering this question, I think it is important to step back and consider what is happening in the real world. Hopefully, it could help put the focus on what really matters….
You could argue that Jane’s brothers had it better. Andy and Bruce and Gene and Martin were tossed into a bag, on top of hundreds of others. Over many agonizing minutes, they were crushed as more and more were added to the bag. With increasing panic, they struggled with all their might to move, to breathe, as their collective weight squeezed the air from their lungs. No matter how desperately they fought and gasped, they couldn’t get enough air, until finally, mercifully, they blacked out and eventually died.
Jane’s torments were just beginning, however. Her mouth was mutilated, leaving her in so much pain she couldn’t eat for several days. One of her sisters was unable to eat and starved to death. Jane ended up stuffed into a cage with Becky, Arlene, Megan, Tracy, and Lynn in a tiny wire cage. To call it a “prison” would be a gross understatement. They were crammed into the cage so tightly that the wires rubbed their skin raw. Their excrement mixed with that of thousands of others, and the horrible ammonia stench of the piles of feces burned their nostrils and lungs.
Struggling for freedom, Megan was eventually able to reach her head through the wires. But then she was trapped, unable to get back in. Over the next few days, she slowly, painfully died of dehydration.
After over a year of this torture, Jane’s feet became tangled in the wire mesh of the floor. Unable to move, she was beginning to dehydrate. But before death could end her pain, she was torn from the cage, her entangled toes left behind, ripped from her body. The brutality of her handler crushed many of her bones, and she was thrown into a truck. For the next 14 hours, she and hundreds of others were driven through the Iowa winter, without protection, food, or water. The cold numbed the pain of Jane’s mutilated feet, but not the acute agony of her shattered bones. She was then shackled upside down, and had her throat cut. That’s how her torment ended.
An unfathomable number of individuals have suffered and are suffering just as Jane did.
Given that this is the current reality, we have a difficult choice to make:
We can spend our very limited time and resources worrying about, arguing about, and attacking each other over words and definitions.
Or we can focus our efforts entirely on actually ending the system that brutalizes individuals like Tracy and Gene.
If we take Jane’s plight seriously, the best thing most of us can do at the moment is help persuade more people to buy cruelty-free foods. As tempting as it is, we can’t just remain in our bubble, liking and retweeting what our fellow advocates say. We can’t be distracted by online debates. We can’t endlessly reevaluate every question and debate.
Instead, we have to focus on realistic strategies that start to create significant and lasting change with new people in the real world. As hard as it is, we absolutely must stop paying attention to people who want to create the world’s smallest club, and start paying attention to what actually creates real change with people who currently don’t know about Jane’s plight.
Questions like the above – about our definitions and opinions – seem harmless. But not only do they waste valuable time and resources, they reinforce the idea that our work is an academic exercise. It isn’t – the lives of individuals like Tracy and Andy depend on us actually doing constructive work in the real world. VS: Do you think it is useful for vegans to point it out when they see non-vegan behaviour of “vegans”?
Three things should guide our actions in any situation:
1. The behavior or practice we see has actual, real-world negative consequences for animals.
2. We have a realistic expectation that our actions will lead to a net good; i.e., there is reason to believe positive change is likely, and it is unlikely there will be any offsetting negative or contrary consequences.
3. There is nothing better (i.e., more likely to reduce more suffering) we could be doing with our limited time and resources.
It is hard to imagine anything we could do that that would have fewer real-world positive consequences for animals than spending our limited time and resources policing the world’s smallest club.
I’ve actually found a pretty clear distinction between people whose primary concern is the purity and exclusivity of their club, vs those who are really working to change the world for animals. The former view everyone as the enemy. The latter view everyone as a (current or potential) ally.
Viewing everyone as an ally is not only necessary for truly helping individuals like Jane and Andy, but it is also much better for our mental health and the sustainability of our activism.
VS: What are some exceptions you would make? Is there non-vegan behaviour you indulge in?
In an interview many years ago, someone* was infuriated that I had once said I wouldn’t police what our daughter ate birthday parties. They justified their anger by saying it would send “mixed messages” if a four-year-old ate a piece of non-vetted cake. I replied that I never knew anyone who said, “Oh, I would have stopped eating animals, but then I saw this toddler having cake!”
You (Tobias) have wisely pointed out that what we personally consume is nowhere near as important as the influence we can have in the wider world. So I think our limited time is better spent figuring out how to be better examples and advocates, rather than trying to be ever more “pure.” And even if we don’t agree with that, the only way to be truly pure is to be dead. But really, is the best case scenario for the world one where I’m dead? Where you’re dead? It would be really sad if that were the case.
The evidence doesn’t support that, though. By being a thoughtful, realistic, positive, bottom-line focused advocate, we can have a significant impact beyond what we accomplish with our personal purchases.
There is so much each one of us can do to lessen the amount of suffering in the world, to expand our circle of compassion, to bend the arc of history toward justice.
But making the world a better place has to be our fundamental goal. We can’t be motivated to follow some dogma or comply with some definition. To create the change necessary to make the world a better place, we have to deal with others where they are. We have to be realistic about what change can happen and how it can most likely be brought about. We have to be pragmatic in evaluating our options and choosing the best course of action, given the variables and uncertainties inherent in the real world.
The best thing I can do in one situation (e.g., a child’s birthday party) might not be the best I can do in another situation (e.g., meeting with a group of new activists). And neither of these might be the best thing you could do in the opportunities you encounter. I can’t know for sure what the best thing to do is in any situations, but I do know it isn’t simple.
VS: To what extent should we use the word “vegan” in our outreach and to what extent other words? When? What words?
I stopped eating meat, eggs, and dairy over a quarter century ago. At the time, and for years after, I was mindlessly pro-“vegan.” Not pro-animal, or pro-compassion, or pro-change. Pro-“vegan.” The word. The identity. The philosophy and “lifestyle.”
But in the real world, “vegan” is a stereotype, a punchline, an excuse. People say, “I could never be vegan,” and that is the end of the conversation – the end of any opportunity for constructive engagement, for steps taken that could have a real-world benefit for animals.
“Vegan” is an ego-boost, a divider, a distraction. It is too easy to simply judge things as “vegan / not vegan,” instead of focusing on cruelty to animals, working to end factory farms, and having any real impact in the real world.
When I focused on “vegan,” instead of how to bring about real change for animals in the real world, I was being both self-centered and lazy. I understand the desire to only care about “vegan,” of course. But at best, the word distracts from doing our best to help new people make compassionate choices that have real consequences for animals.
VS: You have said that the greatest hindrance to the spread of veganism … is vegans themselves. Can you elaborate?
I’ve seen the dynamic of “I could never be vegan” play out for years. As discussed in The Accidental Activist, bottom-line-oriented activists experience a huge increase in the quantity and quality of conversations when they changed their shirts (stickers, etc.) from “Ask me why I’m vegan” to “Ask me why I’m vegetarian.”
University of Arizona research in early 2015 bears this out: non-vegetarians see “vegan” as impossible, and “vegans” as angry, fanatical, and judgmental. I have known several individuals who have given up lucrative careers to dedicate themselves to farm animals, and yet been so put off by the actions of “vegans,” that they want to disassociate themselves from the word. This is depressing, but it’s reality. I believe it is better to face reality and adjust so we can really help animals in the real world.
VS: Do we need to guard a definition or some line? Is that important? Is there a danger of watering down the concept of “veganism”?
It can be utterly addictive to debate terms, argue philosophy, and defend positions. It can be next to impossible to turn away from a debate, given that we each think we are right, and should be able to convince someone if we get the next post just right.
In the end, though, we have limited time and resources. We can, of course, spend this limited time trying to convince someone who has wedded their sense of self-worth to a specific position. But this is no more constructive than spending our time arguing with our Uncle Bob. I think we should spend our limited time and resources reaching out, in a constructive way, to new people – people who actually could make a difference with better-informed choices.
As difficult as it is, it would be so amazing if everyone who reads your blog would stop engaging in internecine debates. Ignore the attacks. Ignore the name calling. Give up the fantasy of winning an argument. Give up any concern with words or dogma. It would be so incredible if we were to just focus on positive outreach to new people.
VS: For most of your career, you have mainly worked on person-to-person outreach, rather than institutional outreach. What is the reason behind that?
When I stopped eating animals back in the 1990s, there was really no consideration of doing institutional outreach regarding farm animals. Before I did a more utilitarian evaluation of my efforts, I did try to put pressure on Procter and Gamble to stop testing their products on animals, even going so far as to get arrested.
After that, though, I realized I needed to work where I could have the biggest impact in terms of reducing suffering. But I couldn’t just go to a restaurant or food service provider and ask them to add in more cruelty-free options. This is a capitalist society, and if the demand isn’t there, no company is going to create supply (this played out when some McDonald’s introduced a veggie burger years ago, and it failed). Similarly, I would have no impact as an individual in asking Smithfield or Tyson to stop using gestation crates or move to a less cruel slaughter method.
Things have changed significantly in the past three decades. The animal advocacy movement as a whole has gained significant political and market power, such that corporations are more likely to listen and cooperate. Demand for meat-free options has grown in breadth (if not depth) such that working with institutions can have a lasting impact and further drive the cruelty-free demand / supply cycle. There is so much potential – more than half of the people in the US are specifically concerned with the treatment of farm animals!
Some of the most important and consequential work being done right now is at the institutional level. e.g. banning the most barbaric practices from factory farms, increasing the availability of cruelty-free options, and building the companies that will create the products that will replace animal products.
But as long as people want to eat an animal’s flesh, animals will be treated like meat. Of course, this isn’t saying that all animal exploitation is equally bad, or that abolishing gestation crates or battery cages isn’t an important step forward.
What we do know, however, is that even in “humane” meat situations, there is suffering – often, egregious cruelty. We’ve seen this regularly, including PETA’s recent exposure of the horrors of Whole Foods “humane meat.”
The continuing necessity of work on the demand side, combined with my background and opportunities to date, leads me to conclude that at this moment, I can have the biggest impact on the advocacy side. I don’t know if this will continue to be the case, however. There is a ton of exciting work going on now that wasn’t the case even 10 years ago!
VS: What do you think of reducetarian outreach?
The reducetarian approach is rooted in one vitally important psychological insight: people are more likely to attempt and maintain a change that seems achievable, rather than something that seems far beyond where they are now. This has been shown over and over again – not only that the more realistic a change is, the more likely people are to attempt it, but also that the more stepwise a change, the more likely people are to maintain that change.
But as currently embodied, the reducetarian movement misses another important psychological truth (as discussed by Dr. Gordon Hodson): goals must be not only reasonable and achievable, but clear. “Eat less meat” is not a clear goal. Reach out to just about anyone considered to be a likely target for dietary change and ask them to “eat less meat,” and they will almost universally reply, “Oh, I don’t eat much meat.”
They often add, “Just chicken.” But of all the factory-farmed animals brutalized and killed for food, the vast majority are birds. Yes, nearly everyone cares more about mammals than birds. But as Professor of Veterinary Science John Webster has noted, modern poultry production is, “in both magnitude and severity, the single most severe, systematic example of man’s inhumanity to another sentient animals.” Combine this with the fact that it takes more than 40 chickens to replace the meals produced by one pig, and more than 200 birds to replace one cow, everyone who “eats less [red] meat” and replaces even a little of it with birds is causing a lot more suffering.
Like doctors, our first duty as advocates should be to “do no harm.” The initial test we should run on any potential campaign or message is, “Is there any chance that my efforts will actually lead to more animals suffering in the real world?” Unfortunately, I think the “eat less meat” campaign might fail that test. VS: Speaking of chickens, you recently helped create One Step for Animals, which emphasizes decreasing chicken consumption. It’s clear that that would help save a lot of lives and suffering (as chickens are both such small animals and so intensively raised). Do you think there’s any truth to the idea that this is speciesist, or that it encourages eating other animals?
Encouraging people to cut back on or not eat chickens is just that. It is in no way saying that people should eat cows, or pigs, or dogs, or chimpanzees.
One Step isn’t concerned with speciesism, but rather, realism. One Step takes starts with all the statistics and known psychological truths. Just as importantly, though, One Step refuses to be driven by definitions. One Step refuses to engage or appease the dogmatists. Rather, One Step for Animals is concerned only with results in the real world: reducing the most suffering possible. You can disagree that their approach is likely to do that, but “reducing suffering” is the only metric by which One Step (or any group) should be judged.
VS: What is the number one piece of advice you would give to vegan activists?
Rather than considering how popular something is with your circle of friends, judge everything by the likely consequences your actions will have with non-vegetarians in the real world. To a first approximation, this will mean calculating how your actions will impact people’s consumption of chickens.
For more tips and suggestions, people can read my books and writings:
If you like a linear discussion, The Animal Activist’s Handbook is probably your best bet.
If you like collections of essays and short stories, The Accidental Activist.
I think the effective altruism movement provides us with useful and much needed tools to asses the value of actions, strategies and organisations in the animal rights or any other movement. I like the idea of estimating what the impact of a certain organisation or campaign is. I like the focus on measurable goals, and of comparing input (time, money and other resources) with output (impact) in order to get an idea of the ROI (return on investment). In a way, we owe it to the beings we want to help to look for the best ways to spend our resources.
Today I visited a sanctuary for wolves, somewhere in New Mexico. While there, I suddenly felt sad, somehow, and I didn’t really understand why until the next morning (we camped at the sanctuary), when it hit me: considerations of effectiveness forbade me to give a donation to this sanctuary. It’s not that it looked inefficiently run or that the people working and volunteering there didn’t seem motivated – on the contrary. But it was the idea that supporting an operation that tried to give a new life to a couple of dozen abused or abandonned wolves was just not the best use of the limited money I have to donate. Moreover, the wolves are predators, living on many pounds of fresh meat every day.
That’s what I had been thinking in the back of my head, and that’s what had made me sad. Because while I realized all of this was rationally true for me, it also felt like some kind of betrayal to these animals, who were so real, lying before me and having kept me up during the night with their awe-inspiring howling. I felt my rational reasoning was somehow callous, and I found the thought that i would somehow ignore these wolves unbearably sad.
In the end, we left a donation – on top of the money we paid for meeting a wolf face to face. I am still convinced it wasn’t the most effective use of our money, that it wasn’t the most rational thing to do. We may have done it to make ourselves feel better. But then again, we were there. The sanctuary was on our path. The wolves were looking at us. And the wonderful people working there looked like they could use anything they could get. And also, in spite of the lack of rationality, I think it is a strength and a good thing that one can be touched by the eyes of the beings you’re looking into. Part of me thinks the world would be a more dangerous and less caring place without that. Maybe without this direct empathy, there would be nothing in us that would want to measure anything at all.