The imperfect veganism of Ezra Klein

Ezra Klein, founder and editor in chief of the news website Vox, was on the podcast of Tim Ferris, and one of the things they talked about was veganism and eating animals. Ferris asked Klein what he would give a TED talk about if he had to choose a topic outside of his actual specialty, and Klein said it would be something on the ethics of meat eating, which he feels “really strongly about.”

Ezra Klein
Ezra Klein

Klein says that what we eat is a very profound moral choice. He believes – and Ferris concurs – that in the future people will look back on the way we treated animals in this era and judge us “very, very harshly”, because “we’re torturing a lot of sentient beings constantly.” Klein has clearly given a lot of thought to the topic – he mentions some advocates like Bruce Friedrich and Matt Ball. He talks about how we cause much more suffering if we switch from beef to chicken, and the same when we eat a lot of factory farmed eggs instead of beef. He thinks in terms of real impact: “if we can get everyone to cut meat consumption by half, that is so much better than quadrupling the number of vegetarians.” So, we need to think about reduction, according to Klein.

The most interesting part of the podcast for me was when Klein talked about his own eating habits. At some point in their dialogue, Ferris suggests that if you try to take people “from zero to sixty” [he’s talking about the demand for overnight conversion to veganism],  the dropoff is probably going to be above 90% after a few weeks. Klein tells Ferris of his own struggle with sticking to it:

“There is a fair amount of behavioral science evidence that it is important for people to act in ways reasonably consonant with the identity that they have for themselves. (…) And this is something I found because I floated back and forth between veg’ism and not for a long time (…). What happened was I would say “I’m going vegetarian”, and then at some point, I would fail. And having failed, it’s not like what would happen is that I would go to 95% vegetarian: I would completely collapse back into full-on omnivorism. And the reason in part was that if I’d set up the success structure such that I was vegetarian or I was not, then “was not” was almost the same kind of failure, no matter how much meat I was eating, what kind of meat I was eating…”

So, here’s how Klein solved it:

“The way this actually stuck for me this time was that the way I went vegetarian a couple of years ago now, was with a tremendous number of caveats: “I’m vegetarian except when I travel, cause I know when I travel I often have a lot of trouble sticking to vegetarianism; so, if I’m vegetarian except when I travel and then when I travel I eat meat, well then, it doesn’t offend my identity at all. And now, I’m mostly vegan. I eat vegan at home, except when I travel I’m vegetarian. And, there are a couple of points in the year, like I’ve been having sushi with my best friend’s mother since I was a  kid, and it is important to me that I am able to continue that tradition. And so, as opposed to having sushi there twice a year and then collapsing out of all my other eating habits because of it, this is now built into it. And so, I actually find that personally very helpful to not be so strict on myself (…).

I think this fragment pretty much speaks for itself. It reminded me of something that Jonathan Safran Foer told me in an interview: you have this person who was vegan and all of a sudden, he’s not anymore. So, you ask him: what happened, and he says: well, I was in the airport and there was nothing to eat, and I ate meat and then I just slid back into my normal omnivorous diet. Foer’s suggestion was not to make being a strict vegan too important a part of your identity.

The solution here for some people might be to try to make really sure that they never make an exception at all. But for other people, like for Ezra Klein, it could be to just build in the exceptions or the mildness as part of their vegan identity. It’s probably more sustainable to do it like this.

You can listen to the podcast episode here. The relevant part is from minutes 34 to 44.

The myth of the overnight vegan conversion

This is a guest post by Hillary Rettig. Hillary is author of The Lifelong Activist (Lantern Books, 2006) and other works. She has been a vegan and vegan activist since 2004, and is currently organizer of Vegan Kalamazoo and a member of IDA’s Sustainable Activism Council. She will be speaking on joyful and effective vegan activism at VegFest Colorado.

The myth of the overnight vegan conversion

In 2004, I “instantly” became vegan at the National Animal Rights Conference in Washington, D.C. It was my first-ever animal rights event; I can’t remember my exact motivation for going, except that I was a lifelong animal lover who was looking to create some change in my life.

Needless to say, it was a mind- (and heart-) opening experience that culminated for me during a screening of Tribe of Heart’s classic Peaceable Kingdom. Like many others, when I saw the scenes of brutalized animals and dehumanized laborers, I wanted nothing to do with any of it—and so, within literally seconds of the movie’s end, I called my then-husband and told him I was vegan.

So, instant conversion.

Or, maybe not.

My conversion actually came after a lifetime of a profound love for animals, and decades of on-and-off vegetarianism.

It was also built on a foundation of a decades-long commitment to social justice.

And the conference itself—an intensive, immersive multiday investigation into, and celebration of, all things animal rights and vegan—was an incredible kickstarter for my new ethic and life. I learned lots, and met amazing people who, more than a decade later, continue to be friends and mentors.

So I was primed, as the psychologists say, for conversion and success. I’m guessing that most so-called “instant conversions” are similar—meaning that they’re not really instant. Moreover, I didn’t even become “fully vegan” at that time. Probably more like 99%. For years afterwards, despite my best intentions, I would, about once a month, feel compelled to eat a nonvegan candy bar or dish of comfort food. This mainly happened during times of stress and was part of an emotional eating problem I’ve struggled with my whole life.

I’m happy to report, though, that that phase passed. Now I’m probably a 99.9% vegan.

I’m not claiming to be a moral exemplar. Perhaps there are people who do, indeed, switch from carnism to to 99.9%, or even 99.99%, veganism overnight. If there are, however, I’m guessing the number is pretty small. And does anyone ever really make it to 100%? I’m not sure that’s even possible, given the pervasiveness of animal-derived products in our food, medical, household, and other spheres.


Some vegans don’t see it that way. They demand instant and eternal perfection of all vegans. I’m guessing they see themselves as maintaining the standard, which I do think is a valuable role. I also imagine they’re afraid that people, if “permitted” to take baby steps or “allowed” the occasional lapse, will grow complacent and continue (or restart) eating animal products. However, psychological research actually indicates that, in diet and other areas, it’s the people who try to make too many changes at once who are more likely to backslide or even give up entirely. In Thin for Life, her comprehensive survey of weight loss research and strategies, author Anne Fletcher notes, “Many people…feel overwhelmed when they try to make multiple changes all at once.” She recommends dieters, “…take things one food group at a time.”

It’s pretty universally accepted that, if your goal is to motivate people, demanding perfection is a dead end. As the late renowned UCLA basketball coach John Wooden once said, “I did talk about perfection [to my players]. I said it was not possible. But I said it’s not impossible to try for it. That’s what we did in every practice and game.” (I’m also guessing he didn’t expect senior-level performance from his freshman, but worked with them to achieve gradual improvement via the baby steps.). Some research among vegetarians and vegans also seems to indicate that the people who don’t change overnight, tend to stick to it longer.*

Overnight conversions are highly meaningful from the standpoint of the animals saved, but useless as moral exemplars for a few reasons. First, it’s pretty clear that the ability to easily change one’s diet is uncommon. That’s why there’s a $65 billion weight loss industry in the U.S. and a global obesity epidemic. Forget about asking many of these people to go vegan (or more vegan) to save animals’ lives; they can’t do it even to save their own life.

Moreover, people struggle with their food for many reasons, some of which are evolutionary, genetic, and societal, and thus largely outside their individual control. (I’m currently writing a book on weight loss and the chapter on barriers is forty pages long.)

In other words, those who are able to convert quickly are not just virtuous but also lucky—and perhaps luck is the more relevant characteristic.

And then we come to the perfection-seekers’ main tactics: guilt-trips and shaming. Think about it: if those truly worked, wouldn’t there be a lot more thin people? And vegans? Many overweight people, and probably some imperfect or lapsed vegans, lay a lot of shame and guilt on themselves every day. (And the fat shaming that one occasionally sees in the vegan community is not just a disgrace and a violation of ahimsa (nonharm), but is also counterproductive.)

None of the above should be construed to mean that we shouldn’t, like Wooden’s players, aim for perfection, and support others in their quest for it. Like all human endeavors, however, veganism will inevitably always be both a shining model of what is possible and a daily practice at which fallible humans in challenging circumstances inevitably fall short. As the philosopher Immanuel Kant put it, “Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.”

And I’ll leave you with a final quote from Wooden: “A coach is someone who can give correction without causing resentment.”

* see also Haverstock and Forgays, “To eat or not to eat. A comparison of current and former animal product limiters.” Appetite 58, 2012.