Megan Watkins, Hero of Compassion

We are thrilled to continue to recognize Heroes of Compassion, people who are working tirelessly behind the scenes to help animals and make the world a more compassionate place.

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Today, we honor Megan Watkins. Megan joined the Farm Sanctuary Board of Directors in 2009 and has served as Chair, as well as on the Development and Executive committees.  Megan is the National Practice Executive for Foundations & Grantmaking at U.S. Trust.  She leads the practice area dedicated to helping individuals and families, as well as boards of directors and trustees, to maximize their impact in the charitable sector.  This includes educating and advising her clients on a number of topics related to philanthropic giving, including how to select the most appropriate charitable giving vehicle, identifying and articulating a philanthropic vision and mission, engaging family and/or board members in philanthropy, and the many nuances involved in starting and operating a strategic giving program.  Prior to joining U.S. Trust, Megan served as Philanthropic Advisor and Program Officer in the Philanthropic Services Group at J.P. Morgan Private Bank, where she facilitated giving in the areas of animal rights and welfare, affordable housing, human services, workforce development and youth development.  Megan’s additional nonprofit and policy activities include roles with ACCION New York, World Neighbors Nepal, and the U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs.  Megan holds a Master of International Affairs degree from the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University, and a Bachelor of Arts in Latin American Studies from Barnard College.

Here is my conversation with Megan.

What does the phrase “living compassionately” mean to you? What inspired you to start down this path?

To me, living compassionately means living in a way that causes the least amount of suffering to those around you.  It means listening, being thoughtful, and showing care and concern in the decisions you make and the actions you take.  I would say that I started down this path fairly early in life, having been raised by a mother who was incredibly community- and service-oriented, even given limited time and income.  She was the first to teach my sisters and me that everyone’s voice mattered and that everyone should be heard.  She also showed us that it was important to keep our door open, to the people and the animals who needed our help.

It wasn’t until later in my life when I began to fully grasp the plight of farm animals and the conflict that existed between my values and my diet.  I absolutely attribute this awakening to the animals residing at Farm Sanctuary.  I had taken a trip up to Watkins Glen with my husband and a group of close friends.  Unsure of what to expect when stepping onto the property, I suddenly found myself sitting on the ground, looking into the eyes of the animals, and knowing that I was about to make a change that would impact the rest of my life.

What was the transition like for you, and what did you learn that might be useful to people currently trying to make changes?

My sister, my husband and I all transitioned to a vegan diet on the same day several years ago.  This was incredibly helpful to all of us, as we made our way through cleaning out kitchen cabinets, restocking ingredients and comparing recipes.  While I would say that we were all on a learning curve for the first year, we kept moving forward and soon found ourselves planning trips based on nearby vegan restaurants, or on Facetime “SOS” calls when our recipes were a flop.  If I had one tip, it would be to find a community.  Whether that is just a friend to join you, or an established group like Farm Sanctuary, every transition is easier when not alone (and you are definitely not alone on this one!).

What has been most challenging and/or surprising about living a compassionate life?

img_6177Speaking very personally, when I first became involved with Farm Sanctuary, I felt a bit like an outsider breaking into a very tight community.  I was newly vegan and, while familiar with the issues facing farm animals, hadn’t participated in the animal rights movement at such depths.  My experiences and motivations may have been questioned at times, which initially left me feeling somehow not vegan enough, or maybe not activist enough.  Interestingly, and perhaps ironically, I now find myself on the other side of this, struggling to be patient with those who haven’t made similar transitions in their own lives.  And then I remember, as Gene wisely points out, that we are most successful when we are able to meet people where they are.  Just like he met me where I was, once upon a time.

What advice / tips would you give to people who find it hard to cope with living in a world where the vast majority of people eat meat and so many farm animals are suffering and dying every day?              

Before I became involved with Farm Sanctuary, I actually used to lie awake, unable to shake images of animal cruelty.  I would have tears in my eyes, and would just stare at the ceiling.  I felt helpless, like the issue was too big and I was too small.  When I began spending time taking action on behalf of farm animals, when I sat with them in their own environment, I was finally able to breathe.  So my advice to anyone feeling helpless – activate.  Get even closer to the issue.  Become part of a community that cares and that is taking action on behalf of these incredible souls.

How did you learn about Farm Sanctuary, and why (and/or how) did you get involved?

Many years ago, I attended an animal welfare philanthropy conference where Gene participated on a panel.  He spoke early, maybe first, in a soft tone, telling stories of individual animals and allowing us to picture the beauty of what happens when farm animals find sanctuary.  He was followed by two or three other speakers, I honestly don’t remember, as I needed to leave the room.  When the next speaker began, and the horrifying images started to hit the screen, it was too much for me to process.  I waited outside in the hallway, listening, but not watching.  That was probably the first time that I thought seriously about needing to engage in some level of work on behalf of farm animals.  And while I absolutely acknowledge the impact that those other speakers and images had on me, it was Gene’s focus on the animals as individuals and ambassadors that truly spoke to me.

Has there been a specific animal who was special to you?

That’s easy – Snickers [lead photo of interview].  Snickers steer was the first resident of Farm Sanctuary to welcome me to the farm.  I treasure my picture with this amazing ambassador, he was an incredibly gentle soul and will forever be my reminder of my awakening to the plight of farm animals.

Do you have a favorite resident at one of the sanctuaries, and/or do you have a special affinity for a certain species of farm animal?

I can honestly say that I love every one of the Farm residents, even the bull who MAY have chased Susie and me over a fence one blazing hot afternoon.

image1If I were to pick … I really love goats.  I would live among the goats, with the full understanding that my pockets would be picked and my coat sleeves chewed until eternity.

What is your cookbook or recipe?

I am a huge fan of Terry Walters and the Clean Food cookbook.  Her lentil soup recipe is amazing!  My sister and I had the pleasure of joining her for a clean food cooking/yoga weekend and everything was plant-based, gluten free and pure awesome.

 

 

30, Looking Back at 25’s Just Eats Tour

As most of you know, this is Farm Sanctuary’s 30th Anniversary. To celebrate as part of the Gala this month in Los Angeles, Gene’s old VW van has come out of retirement. Attendees can step right up and order a veggie dog celebrating this blast from the past.

25van

 

Gene previously had the van out for a tour following our 25th Anniversary. Here, we bring you his excerpts from his notes from that “Just Eats” cross-country tour five years ago:

Starting at Farm Sanctuary’s 25th Anniversary Gala, I’ve been on the Just Eats Tour, driving the original 1977 VW van that launched Farm Sanctuary in 1986 across the U.S. to celebrate our 25th anniversary and to explore vegan America.

Ib7f9uo6cqaan1bdn this van, we rescued our first animal, Hilda, a downed sheep who had been left on a pile of dead animals behind Lancaster Stockyards in Pennsylvania. In the early days of Farm Sanctuary, we also raised funds to support our work by selling veggie hot dogs out of this van at Grateful Dead concerts. Getting the old VW on the road again has been a blast, and we’re meeting so many amazing people along the way. We’ve found vegan food and vegan advocates in every corner of the country, in both rural and urban settings.

The factory farming industry is deeply entrenched in our food culture and economic system, but change is afoot. More and more consumers are seeking to reconnect with the sources of their food and to eat well, impulses that inevitably lead to a rejection of factory farming. An entrepreneurial spirit is flourishing in this burgeoning food movement, and new, socially responsible enterprises are sprouting up in agricultural areas.

After three weeks on the road, the van pulled into Orland, CA, in time for our Hoe Down. It was a beautiful event and the perfect conclusion to our cross -country exploration.

6a010536e26195970b01538f695bb2970b-800wiBesides the dependability of our old VW van, we were taken by the remarkable passion and diversity of America’s vegan food movement. We found vegans in urban and rural areas, representing all shapes and sizes, ethnicities and lifestyles. We met entrepreneurs, authors, academics, and spiritual and business leaders. We spoke with people who have been vegan for decades and others who just recently decided to forego animal products. And we also met second and third generations of vegans. The vegan movement is bringing people of different ages and various backgrounds together around common interests.

Restaurants are catching on, experimenting with vegan dishes and reporting strong demand. They have been impressed by how enthusiastic and appreciative vegan customers are to see plant-based options. The vegan community is helping these businesses to make plant foods more widely available, providing menu suggestions, product recommendations, and even recipes and food preparation tips. And with more vegan options available, omnivores are increasingly choosing them. Everywhere we went across the U.S., we saw that the vegan movement is vibrant and growing!

 

Guest Post: Beyond Meat and Tyson: sleeping with the enemy?

Another great post from our good friend Tobias!

The multinational meat company Tyson Foods is – at least to the vegan movement – a monster, slaughtering millions and millions of animals every year.

The startup Beyond Meat, on the other hand, is one of the vegan movement’s darlings, for taking meat alternatives to new levels.

How should the vegan movement respond when one invests in the other?

That’s what just happened: Tyson Foods bought a minority stake (5%) in Beyond Meat.

Beyond Meat

Judging by the comments on Beyond Meat’s Facebook page, and the company’s public response in a blog, many vegans are not amused.

The accusations are unsurprising: Beyond Meat sold out. They’re only in it for the money. Buying a Beyond Meat product now means financially supporting the meat industry, etc. Therefore, (some) vegans will no longer buy Beyond Meat.

On the other hand, the announcement also got over 1600 likes.

So it seems the audience is torn. What to think?

I’ll take the example of Tyson and Beyond Meat to talk about a very basic distinction when we think about what’s good and what’s not good. It will be obvious for many among you, but is hopefully illuminating for many others.

Basically, one of the ways to explain the different opinions about what Beyond Meat did is in terms of a difference between focusing on values and focusing on consequences. When we look at many moral discussions and issues, this dichotomy is often at their basis.

Let’s investigate.

People who attach the most importance to values will say things like what you read above: that Beyond Meat sold out. That you just can’t deal or cooperate with a company like Tyson Foods because it is evil. That now Beyond Meat has been contaminated. They will point to all the bad things Tyson does, that their intentions are bad, and will say that being somehow implicit in further enriching them is plain immoral.

People who attach the most importance to consequences will look at what will happen as a result of this “collaboration”. They will keep in mind the bottom line (reducing animal suffering, abolishing the killing of animals, or something of this nature) and wonder if what happened will advance this bottom line. In other words, they will not ask whether Beyond Meat did an evil thing or not, but will wonder what good or bad will come out of it: will there be more or fewer animals killed (in the long or short term).

Put very bluntly, for the sake of making it clear, we could say that value-oriented people will say that if something is wrong, it’s wrong, irrespective of any positive consequences. Consequence-oriented people will say that something is okay if the consequences are mostly positive, no matter whether or not we can consider the actual action or deed immoral.

It’s usually not that simple or black and white though. Value-oriented people will almost always take consequences into account to at least some extent, and consequences-oriented people will not throw all values overboard. But it’s a matter of focus, or priority. Two other words for these two approaches would be principled versus pragmatic. In philosophical terms, these two positions are known as deontologist (from the Greek word for “duty”) versus consequentialist (or utilitarian).

Here’s another example that may make the distinction between values and consequences clearer. A skilled hunter may give a wild animal a quicker and more merciful death than when this same animal would die a long, cruel death from hunger. However, this hunter – assuming his first intention is not to reduce animal suffering – wants to have a quick thrill killing an innocent being. Now, if we would have the power to stop this from happening again, what do we do? Do we stop the hunter because we think it’s wrong, even if that would be much less painful for the animal (let’s assume the animal will die in a few days or weeks through lack of food). Or do we say that, exactly because of these consequences, and in spite of the hunter’s intentions, this whole action turns out to be okay and we should support it?

It’s complicated, as you can see, and this discussion has being going on for ages in moral philosophy. It’s what the famous trolley problem is about, and it’s also what my experiment about eating meat for money is about.

(One way to think about this is to put yourself, in this case, in the position of the animal. Would you want people to care more about the consequences, which are directly affecting you? Or about the principles? My view here is that as the animal, I wouldn’t care about what’s right or wrong for humans to do. I would care about my suffering or not suffering.)

If you focus on values, and you have your values clear, then you can often use quick judgments to state whether to you personally something is okay or not okay. But if you judge by consequences, you need to investigate those consequences, and these are not always clear, and you usually have more “work” to do than a values-oriented person.

Let’s go back to Beyond Meat and Tyson Foods. I usually find myself attaching more importance to consequences. Reducing animal suffering to me is what counts, and I’m usually in favor of everything that contributes to that. So, apart from wondering if an investment of Tyson Foods in Beyond Meat is an evil thing in itself, so to speak, we could wonder: what would the concrete, actual consequences for the animals be? More generally, can it ever be a good thing when meat companies invest in plant-based products? Here are some possible consequences to take into account when assessing this case.

If a meat company butters their bread on two sides, or bets on multiple horses (to say it with two “non-vegan” expressions), and is able to profit from the growth of vegan products, we can assume it will become less resistant to this evolution. The lobby for meat is powerful, but as the industry’s financial dependence on selling animal products decreases while its profits from selling vegan products increases, we can expect a shift in their antagonism towards the growth of vegan consumption.

We could wonder – as many vegans do – what happens with the profits the meat company makes from the vegan products? If we are values-oriented, we could say that this is wrong and disgusting in any case: this money is being used to enrich the exploiters. If we are consequences-oriented, we wouldn’t really mind about that in itself, though we might wonder whether these profits might be used to bolster the company’s meat department. In that case, we’d have a negative consequence. This seems unlikely though. I have a hard time seeing a reason why a company would structurally invest the profits from plant-based products to market their animal-based products – unless of course there’s much more money to be made with the latter. But it’s exactly because plant-based is on the rise and animal-based is (very slowly) on the way down in Western countries, that companies like Tyson are starting to invest in plant-based.

Another argument is that these huge companies like Tyson have a big advertising budget. They are able to put veg products really out there: on TV, in supermarkets, etc. Their reach is much bigger than that of the smaller, idealistic companies (though we cannot but be amazed at the attention Hampton Creek has gotten with virtually no advertising budget!).

If Tyson gets really interested, they could also start using part of their resources for research and development of vegan products.

As CEO Ethan Brown says in his blog post, this financial stake of Tyson in Beyond Meat also creates opportunities for the two companies to work together, and to have an influence on Tyson. This may sound naive, but consider the alternative: usually isolating someone or something doesn’t really do anything in terms of influencing them in the right direction. The only thing isolating someone allows you to do is to keep your hands clean. If you are concerned about keeping your hands clean at all costs, you’re very much values-oriented.

You’re also focusing on values when you say that Tyson is only doing this for profit. This is something that you might find morally problematic. However, no matter what Tyson’s intentions are here (and undoubtedly it’s about profit), the consequences could still be positive. In any case, money is one of the main motivations for people to do anything. I think it’s more useful for us to try to make use of and exploit this motivation than to condemn and boycott it.

Whether you focus more on values or more on results, Tyson is not just going to disappear, or stop doing what they do overnight. Rather, Tyson needs to evolve into something else. That is a much more realistic option. And as much as we dislike what it’s doing now, and as much as we may dislike big companies, capitalism, commercialism, consumerism, and so on, I think the best way is to “allow” Tyson to evolve, and to take steps like it just did. Likewise, I think it’s good if we “allow” Beyond Meat to get their hands dirty and get in bed with what is, until further notice, still the enemy.

 

Messaging for Maximum Change

kennyKenny Torrella (right), an exceptionally effective animal advocate, came across an essay regarding the importance of using the word “vegetarian” instead of “vegan.” This was his experience:

I read [the essay about “vegetarian” vs “vegan”] a few weeks ago and have been experimenting with it lately. I think it’s a small tip for activists that goes a long way. For 2.5 years I had been telling people I was vegan if the subject came up. Now if people ask, I say I’m vegetarian, and it makes a world of a difference. When I used to say I was vegan, people would immediately say some kind of variation of, “That’s awesome, but I could never do that myself.”

Now when I say I’m vegetarian, people become more open and tell me about other vegetarians they know, vegetarian foods they’ve tried, how they’ve considered going vegetarian, or they had been vegetarian in the past and want to get back into it. Whenever I met a vegetarian while leafleting, I used to say, “Have you considered veganism?” The situation would immediately turn a bit sour. For a split second they saw me as someone they had much in common with, and after asking if they’ve considered veganism, they see me as someone telling them to do more – that their vegetarianism is not enough. Out of the number of vegetarians I had met and responded to like this, not a single one responded positively – none said, “Why yes, I have been considering veganism lately!” All of them said a variation of, “Well, veganism seems like a good thing, but it’s just too much for me.” No matter how much cajoling, they wouldn’t budge.

The funny thing about this is that when I was a vegetarian I was the same way toward vegans. This is something important to remember. I didn’t go vegan because another vegan was telling me to, or even telling me about it… I did it on my own after thinking about it and researching it for several months. Now while leafleting, I give words of encouragement to vegetarians I meet. I tell them how awesome it is that they’re vegetarian, to keep it up, I say “Aw, you’re the best,” I give them literature that has recipes and nutritional information. This makes a huge difference! They feel encouraged to do more, rather than being told to. They may not feel as alone in their choice if they meet another “vegetarian” that is also an activist and is thanking them.

Although our initial reaction is to identify as a vegan or to convince vegetarians to go vegan, 9 times out of 10 it doesn’t turn anyone on to veganism— it only makes them feel like they’re being judged, as if their lifestyle choice to eschew all meat products was worth nothing. I’m not saying this is a fool-proof guide to live by and of course there are instances where it’s important to say you’re vegan, or if a vegetarian wants more information about going vegan, then by all means, hand out vegan literature and share your experiences as a vegan. Although I was first skeptical of this tip about language, I experimented with it and found it to be a much better approach toward turning more people on to a vegetarian lifestyle.

As always, kudos to Kenny for being concerned less with justifying his own choices and more with opening as many new hearts and minds as possible!

Originally published in The Accidental Activist.

Gene Baur: Going the Distance for Animals!

Following up on Gene’s previous post from 2011, we revisit his first experience with running a marathon.

2013_03-17_gene_in_la_marathon_727959-1044-0034s_credit_marathonfoto_1400x2100_300_rgb

We grow up bombarded with the false idea that consuming meat is necessary to promote strength and athletic endurance, but there are more and more vegan athletes proving that we can perform exceptionally well eating a plant-based diet. Some have even commented that they heal faster and feel better after cutting meat, eggs, and dairy from their diet. I wanted to personally demonstrate how well vegan food supports athletic feats, so I signed up to run my first marathon [in 2011] in Washington, D.C.

While training for the marathon, I completed two 20-mile runs but had never run a full 26 miles, so I was a bit anxious and concerned as race day approached. I’d heard for years about “hitting the wall,” that point when your body runs out of energy after running 20-plus miles. I hoped I would I have the mental toughness to continue running through that pain.

The week before the marathon, I consumed lots of nutrient-dense green smoothies (which I make with bananas, blueberries, flax meal, kale, spinach, and nondairy milk), along with other healthy plant foods. I wanted to store as much energy in my body as possible to get me through the race. I checked the weather forecast, and the temperature on the day of the race was projected to be in the 70s, which is very warm for March. With warm temperatures, I would need to stay properly hydrated for the 26.2-mile course.

On race day, I had a breakfast of oatmeal, nuts, and bananas, and then rode a very crowded metro to the race location. Packed in tightly with other travelers on the train, I was reminded of how farm animals are crowded on factory farms and in transportation trailers.

When the marathon started, I settled in with the 3:30-pace group, hoping I would be able to maintain that pace over the 26-mile course. I guessed that I would finish the race in somewhere between three-and-a-half and four hours and didn’t want to push myself too hard too soon. I was warned by several marathon veterans that running too fast during the first part of the race causes runners to break down during the last five or six miles.

We ran along the national mall and wound our way through the streets of our nation’s capital with well-wishers and musical performers cheering along the way. I felt comfortable keeping up with the 3:30-pace group for most of the race, stopping to drink at every water and Gatorade station to stay hydrated. Then, around mile 18, I decided to speed up, hoping I could finish the race strong. During the last eight miles of the race, I had moments when my legs felt heavy and my joints ached, but I kept going. I remembered my training and the nutrient-rich foods fueling my body, and I also took heart from the vegan organization I was representing. As I approached the finish line wearing my Farm Sanctuary t-shirt, I sprinted and completed the race with a respectable time of 3:28:03. On Sunday, I learned that time qualified me for the Boston Marathon!

genemedal

As numerous runners have expressed over the years, finishing a marathon is a very satisfying accomplishment. It can be even sweeter and more satisfying when a cause that is bigger than oneself provides the inspiration. For me, that cause is going the distance for farm animals and joining an ever-growing group of athletes who are thriving on a vegan diet.

Since his first marathon, plant-powered Gene has done 6 marathons and 7 triathlons, including an Ironman. Please also see this Runner’s World interview with Gene!

generunIf you are interested in what Gene eats for his amazing plant-based feats, check outWhat Does a Vegan Marathoner Eat?

 

 

The Psychology of Constructive Outreach

At Farm Sanctuary, we believe most people are compassionate individuals who don’t know what truly goes on at factory farms (for if they did, they might make different choices), and who don’t yet know how to start taking meaningful steps to help farm animals.

Farm Sanctuary’s Compassionate Communities Campaign is dedicated to helping all of our members be better examples of compassionate living, as well as more effective advocates for farm animals. The essays and books we recommend are based on the soundest psychological and sociological research relevant to bringing about personal and societal change.

Clementine

Clementine

Tobias Leenaert also explores the effective advocacy space, and is a regular guest blogger here. Recently, he interviewed Dr. Jared Piazza of Lancaster University, UK. Dr. Piazza’s research focuses on moral decision making, including how people think about the moral value of animals. Recently, Dr. Piazza and his colleagues published the papers “Rationalizing Meat Consumption: The 4Ns” in the journal Appetite, and “When Meat Gets Personal, Animals’ Minds Matter Less” in Social Psychological and Personality Science.

The entire interview is worth reading; here is the conclusion:

To finish, I’d like to hear some recommendations you have for activists or the movement.

I guess my first recommendation would be to do your best to avoid the moral reactance and motivated reasoning when discussing the issue of eating meat with people. This is not always possible, but put yourself in their shoes. How would you react if someone suggested to you that something you really enjoy doing and have been doing most of your life was immoral? Perhaps this is something that you never considered to be a problem before and brings you daily pleasure. Do you think you would be receptive to their message at first? Or would you question their arguments? Would you immediately stop what you have been doing all your life, or would you immediately think of ways in which what you’re doing is perfectly acceptable and not problematic?

Perhaps this is something that you never considered to be a problem before and brings you daily pleasure. Do you think you would be receptive to their message at first? Or would you question their arguments? Would you immediately stop what you have been doing all your life, or would you immediately think of ways in which what you’re doing is perfectly acceptable and not problematic? Once you have made the conversion to not eat meat, it is easy to forget what it is like to see things from the other side – from the perspective of the meat-eating majority, who are wondering what all the fuss is about. I’d also recommend to advocates to be inclusive and welcoming, and not to give up. We need people to think they really can make a change. We need to empower people, not only with an awareness of how meat production is destroying our world and ruining lives (lives that truly matter), but also give them an opportunity to imagine other ways of viewing the world, particularly how they view themselves, so they can reason through the arguments in a less defensive, self-preserving manner. I think we may have greater success that way.

Once you have made the conversion to not eat meat, it is easy to forget what it is like to see things from the other side – from the perspective of the meat-eating majority, who are wondering what all the fuss is about. I’d also recommend to advocates to be inclusive and welcoming, and not to give up. We need people to think they really can make a change. We need to empower people, not only with an awareness of how meat production is destroying our world and ruining lives (lives that truly matter), but also give them an opportunity to imagine other ways of viewing the world, particularly how they view themselves, so they can reason through the arguments in a less defensive, self-preserving manner. I think we may have greater success that way.

“Guest” Blogger, Gene Baur!

We’re thrilled to announce that the CCC blog will be running some earlier articles from Gene Baur, Farm Sanctuary’s Co-founder and President and author of two best sellers, Farm Sanctuary: Changing Hearts and Minds About Animals and Food and Living the Farm Sanctuary Life: The Ultimate Guide to Eating Mindfully, Living Longer and Feeling Better Every Day. Gene’s experiences and insights can help us all be better examples of compassionate living.

gene_with_animalWe start this series with part 1 of “Going the Distance for Animals,” from 2011. In this post, Gene talks about stepping out of our comfort zone in order to help farm animals. Bonus: Gene also gives us an abbreviated list of some of the incredible athletes that serve as role models in the face of the idea that eating animal products is necessary (just Google vegan athlete for more examples). This is especially relevant in this just-completed Olympic season (e.g., the only male US weightlifter to make the Games is entirely plant-powered!).

Plant-powered Farris Kendrick sets a new American record.

Plant-powered Farris Kendrick sets a new American record.

I have always enjoyed sports and the exhilaration that accompanies the human drama of athletic competition. I grew up playing Little League baseball and Pop Warner football. In high school and college, I started running cross-country and playing Ultimate Frisbee. After founding Farm Sanctuary in 1986 and becoming a full-time activist, I spent less time pursuing athletics. But as my 50th birthday approaches, I’ve renewed my interest in sports, and I want to demonstrate that vegans can perform significant athletic feats. So I signed up to run in the Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon in Washington, DC, on March 17, 2011.

In the U.S., we are bombarded with advertising and “educational” campaigns promoting the notion that consuming meat, milk, and eggs is healthy, even necessary. Many people believe these myths and assume that it’s difficult, if not impossible, to be vegan, let alone to be a vegan athlete. But, in recent years, information about vegan living and athletic achievements fueled entirely by plant foods is better and more readily available.

Olympic Gold Medalist Carl Lewis reports performing his best as a vegan, and Dave Scott won the grueling Ironman Triathlon six times as a vegan (the Ironman is an endurance race where competitors swim 2.4 miles, bike 112 miles, and then run a full marathon). Scott Jurek, a vegan ultra-marathon runner, is the seven-time winner of the 100-mile Western States Endurance Run. Elite and professional athletes are increasingly recognizing how plant-based nutrition can support top performance.

So far, I’ve completed a couple of 20-mile runs to get ready. These long-distance outings have been challenging, but I’m feeling strong, and I’m looking forward to the marathon.

goingdistance

Stay tuned for part 2 with an update on Gene’s running since 2011, as well as future posts from Gene!

 

Activist Sweet Spot

Tobias looks at where we should each focus:

Sometimes people ask me for ideas or advice about how exactly they could or should help animals. They are trying to find out what kind of activism fits them best.

Basically, I think we need to find some kind of sweet spot that is on the junction of three different aspects. You can see them in the drawing below:

sweet-spot

What you love, or are passionate about: don’t just say “animals”. That’s probably a bit too general. Find something more concrete than that. Maybe it’s vegan cooking to help animals. Or public speaking about animals. Or maybe you are very passionate about people and how they function.

What you are good at: you may have a certain skill set. Maybe, because of your education, talent, or experience, maybe you can do something many other people can’t do, or not as good. You might be a graphic designer, an IT-person, a teacher…

What has an impact: this is about what really helps animals. Everything has an impact, of course, but some things have more impact than others (some things may even have a negative impact).

The overlap between these different aspects can vary: it may be small, it may be bigger. You could be one of those human beings for whom effectiveness and feeling good entirely overlap. That is, you only feel good about your work when you know you’re having the most impact (don’t think you’re like that too quickly though, you might be overlooking things).

This is probably the exception, and more often the overlap is smaller, and there may be contradictions. You may love doing something, but that something is maybe not the most effective thing you can do. Or you may love doing something (like public speaking) but actually you suck at it (you may need other people to tell you that). Or you may be the most effective when you use that skillset of yours, but maybe you need some variation and you don’t feel like using it as a volunteer, outside of your dayjob (it would be a pity, obviously, if you have a degree in cellular biology and could make a contribution to cultured meat, but would choose to leaflet instead).

When there is little overlap or when there are conflicts, you can basicallychoose what you prioritize. Most people in general (I’m not talking about vegans or activists now) usually prioritize their own happiness. As activists or people concerned about the world, we can probably expect a little bit more from ourselves: we can at least give some weight to the impact that we have with our actions, and not just do what feels good. I would say it’s good to give the impact-factor a lot of consideration. Some people, however, may go very far in this, and will unequivocally prioritize impact, at the expense of their own well-being, which is probably not the best or most sustainable idea.

Of course you can make combinations: distributing leaflets about animals seems to be a pretty effective investment of your time, but imagine you don’t really like it. Then you can do that maybe one or a couple of hours a week, and devote the rest of your volunteer time to something you like better (but which may be less effective).

Basically you want to do good for animals, but you also want to feel good about what you’re doing. If you do something that doesn’t make you feel good, you will probably be able to keep that up only for a limited time. This may be worthwhile in itself, because it is, after all, time that you have given to the cause. However, there is always the risk that people seriously burn out from doing something that they don’t like – even if it is effective – and that makes them give up on activism altogether, which probably would be a loss.

So my message is: make a healthy mix. Don’t just do anything because it makes you feel good, but don’t go all out on effectiveness either, because that may burn you out.

 

Why Do Most People Eat Meat?

More from our good friend Tobias:

In the 1950’s, the American psychologist Solomon Asch recruited participants at Swarthmore College (United States) for a now famous experiment. He told them he was doing research on perception, but in reality this was a study about conformity and social pressure. Asch showed the participants a set of pictures like the one below.

asch_experimentEach time he showed such a picture, Asch asked which of the bars on the right was of the same length as the one bar on the left. Participants had to state their answer out loud in the group. However, Asch made sure that all but one of the group members were conspirators, whom he had all ordered to give the same wrong answer. The only real, unsuspecting participant had to give their answer after all the others. To his surprise, Asch found that a disturbingly large number of people in this situation gave a wrong answer themselves. It led Asch to conclude: “The tendency to conformity in our society is so strong that reasonably intelligent and well-meaning young people are willing to call white black.” In some cases, people’s reason to give a clearly incorrect answer was that they thought the group was right. In other cases respondents apparently were afraid of seeming different than the rest or didn’t want to cause any trouble.

It’s not difficult to transfer these findings to our own subject. I think it’s a safe bet to assume that many people feel deep down that there is something wrong with the food they eat. They might believe it’s okay to kill animals for food but also believe that those same animals should at least “have a good life.” Or they might believe it’s not worth killing an animal for food at all. But when all these people constantly see around them that eating meat (or animal products) is treated as normal, it is hard to even believe in that vague feeling of discomfort they may have, and it becomes a lot harder to think that something really wrong is going on. Even as a vegetarian or vegan, as someone who’s really internalized the principle that it is not ok to eat animal products, you may have these small moments of doubt, wondering if you are actually seeing things right. The South-African writer and Nobel Laureate J. M. Coetzee attributes the following thoughts to his vegetarian character Elisabeth Costello:

“It’s that I no longer know where I am. I seem to move around perfectly easily among people, to have perfectly normal relations with them. Is it possible, I ask myself, that all of them are participants in a crime of stupefying proportions? Am I fantasizing it all? I must be mad! Yet every day I see the evidences. The very people I suspect produce the evidence, exhibit it, offer it to me. Corpses. Fragments of corpses that they have bought for money. (…) Yet I’m not dreaming. I look into your eyes, into Norma’s, into the children’s, and I see only kindness, human kindness. Calm down, I tell myself, you are making a mountain out of a molehill. This is life. Everyone else comes to terms with it, why can’t you? Why can’t you?”

In part because there’s still only a tiny minority of the people making a problem of meat eating or acting differently, most people don’t often consciously stop to think about meat eating as a moral issue. According to psychologist Steven Pinker, it is one of the major conclusions of the golden age of social psychology that “people take their cues on how to behave from other people.” To the question why most people eat meat, this is one answer that we can give: most people eat meat because most people eat meat.”

most-people-eat-meat-768x768

Hence, the importance of critical mass. Change requires numbers. We need enough people to voice their doubts, to show their concern, to not participate, to eat differently, so that others do not longer get the idea that meat is natural, normal and necessary.