A Quick Guide to Our Biases

Few of us were raised following a compassionate diet, and few of us immediately stopped supporting the exploitation of farm animals once we found out about factory farms.

Yet if we’ve been living a compassionate life for an extended period, it is easy to forget what it is like to be a meat eater in this society, surrounded by friends are family who also follow the standard American diet. If we are to be effective advocates for farm animals, however, it is important to be able to step outside of ourselves and reach out to people where they are currently.

While the case for our current diet seems entirely self-evident to us, it doesn’t come across that way to others. We all have significant psychological tools and tricks that can help us rationalize and justify our current choices. Understanding these biases is important if we are going to help people get past them and on the path to an ethical diet.

LifeHacker published a nice infographic from Business Insider to summarize our main biases, such as choice-supportive bias, availability heuristic, and the bandwagon effect. Give it a review, and keep them in mind the next time you are talking with someone about the reasons for following a compassionate diet. You might just have a more productive dialog!

 

The Lives of Modern Chickens

In the 1920s, chickens raised and killed for meat lived 112 days, growing to 2.2 pounds on optimal feed before being slaughtered. Now, after decades of genetic manipulations, they are butchered after only about 45-55 days, at 5.5 pounds or more.

This report by Watt Poultry shows some producers with an average weight of more than 8 pounds at slaughter, and this report from the University of Alberta has a strain reaching more than 9 pounds in 56 days.

chicken-illustration
In the latter case, this means chickens are growing more than four times larger in just half the time.

It is now truer than ever what John Webster, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus at the University of Bristol and Former Head of the Bristol Vet School. has said about modern industrial chicken production: “in both magnitude and severity, the single most severe, systematic example of man’s inhumanity to another sentient animal.”

This is all the more reason to keep chickens off our plate, and instead try some of the amazing plant-based meats available to us today!

It Is Possible that Some Arguments Don’t Help Animals

CoverAt Farm Sanctuary, we believe that each and every cow, turkey, pig, chicken, goat, duck, sheep, and other farm animal deserves to live free and according to their own nature. However, as long-time advocates, we know that presenting an “all-or-nothing” message to non-vegetarians is not the optimal way to create real and lasting change.

Thus, we seek to come up with other messages. However, it doesn’t matter how the argument sounds to us, but how this message will actually play out with the targeted audience.

Let’s say we have developed what we think is the most powerful pro-veg argument ever, and we present it to ten people. Incredibly, five of them completely stop eating animals; the others decide to “eat better” — following the mainstream suggestions of their doctor and friends by giving up red meat.

We might think, “Fifty percent conversion rate? That must be the way to go!” This is how I used to think. But after years, I finally learned to ask: How does this argument actually affect animals?

Every year, the average American eats about twenty-three birds, a third of a pig, and a tenth of a cow. It currently takes about 193 birds (chickens + turkeys) to provide the same number of meals as one steer. It takes about fifty-six birds to equal one pig.

So, before our presentation, the ten people consumed a combined 234 land animals every year. After our presentation, the same ten — including the five who joined our vegetarian club — eat 296 land animals per year. This is because, even though our argument convinced fully half of them to stop eating animals entirely, the others replaced their red meat intake with birds in order to eat more “healthfully.”

Anecdotally, we’ve all heard, “Oh, I don’t eat much meat. Just chicken.” Beyond our experiences, though, moving from red meat to chicken is a well-documented fact. For example: “‘If you look at dietary recommendations put forth by the U.S. Department of Agriculture [and other health institutions], they are to decrease red meat and substitute lean meat, poultry and fish,’ says Daniel [a nutritional epidemiologist at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center]. ‘We’ve seen in other data that people are gravitating toward poultry.’”

Finally, the National Institutes of Health notes “[t]he growing preference in the US for poultry, but not fish, as a replacement for red meat.”

There are contradictory studies on how much chicken is eaten by people who give up red meat entirely. But for people who reduce the amount of red meat they eat — the majority of people who change their diet for health reasons — all the data are absolutely clear: red-meat reducers eat much, much more chicken. For example, in the largest recent study, those who consumed the lowest amount of red meat ate fifty percent more chicken than those who consumed the most red meat. [Aston, L. M., et al. Meat Intake in Britain in Relation to Other Dietary Components and to Demographic and Risk Factor Variables: Analyses Based on the National Diet and Nutrition Survey of 2000/2001. Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics 26(1), October 18, 2012.]

Fifty percent more! The facts are clear: anything at all that might possibly lead anyone to cut back on red meat actively harms animals.

Of course, we all know people who have entirely stopped eating animals for health reasons. As vegetarian advocates, we are obviously in a position to hear from and remember them. When we survey vegetarians (and/or meat reducers), of course we sometimes hear the “health argument” as a motivation. But looking only at vegetarians doesn’t begin to show the full impact of any argument. The error is thinking the “health” vegetarians we know or survey are a true sample of society. They aren’t. Rather, they represent a highly self-selected sub-sample.

History shows that eating fewer large animals and more small animals for health reasons isn’t a made-up, worst-case scenario. It has been the driving force for the suffering and slaughter of billions and billions of birds. Just look at any graph of animals killed in the U.S. over time: as the consumption of mammals declined, the slaughter of chickens has been skyrocketing for decades!

bean

This is one of the reasons I won’t use any argument that could, in any way, support the general move toward giving up only red meat. Every person who decides to “eat better” more than counters the good done by a new vegetarian.

In other words: it is important not to simply repeat anti-meat arguments. Instead, we need to carefully promote pro-animal arguments that will actually have a positive net impact for animals in the real world.

Obviously, it feels good to say: “Vegans have lower rates of disease X.” But the point isn’t to feel good about ourselves or our diet. We’re not out to justify or glorify our choices. Our goal is to keep as many animals from suffering as possible as we work toward the world we want, a world where all animals are respected.

Of course, advocates can claim eating birds is bad for everyone’s health and the environment. Putting aside the veracity of those health and environmental claims, this simply isn’t the way the world works. People don’t simply accept what a vegan advocate says as gospel truth. Rather, they combine what they hear from all sources, paying more attention to what their doctor and friends say. On top of this, people generally give much more weight to advice that leads toward what they want to do — i.e., continuing to eat the familiar and convenient foods their friends and family eat.

More importantly, we humans simply don’t make decisions based on what is “perfect” for our health or the environment. None of us, vegans included, exercise the optimal amount, sleep the optimal amount, meditate perfectly, work standing up, give up our car, etc. With few exceptions, we all follow our habits/peers to a significant extent. If we change anything, almost all of us do something somewhat “better” — eating chickens instead of cows.

In other words, no matter what vegans claim is true, and no matter what we want, people will react from where they are, based on what they’re used to and with an eye for what they want. No matter how strong we think our arguments are, no matter how noble our intentions or passionate our desires, when we advocate without considering human nature, history, and the numbers, we can actually cause more animals to suffer and die.

If we want to help animals, we need to advocate with animals as the bottom line.

-Matt

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.

To Reach New People and Help More Animals, Consider the Consequences of Your Words

Plant-Based Protein

Some activists seem to love internecine debates about language, and fights over the word “vegan” seem particularly addictive. Nearly every vegan has an opinion regarding the definition and use of the word, but their fundamental goals often differ. Given the disparity of underlying motivations, it’s not surprising that there is much disagreement.

For many, “vegan” is an end in and of itself. These activists feel very strongly about using that particular word – “vegan” – and glorifying veganism.

But other activists are more concerned with the real-world consequences of the words they use. They don’t want to use a specific word just because they like it, or because it captures their particular worldview. Rather, consequentialist activists choose language that influences the actions of those who currently eat animals. To them, words only matter insofar as they actually reduce suffering.

If you are in the latter camp, there are a number of studies on influencing optimal messaging that you may find very useful in your advocacy efforts. For example, there is much to learn from Faunalytics’ large study of former vegetarians and vegans – which showed that more than four out of every five people who go veg eventually revert back to eating animals. A key strategic takeaway from this survey is that people who change rapidly are less likely to maintain that change, and those who take incremental steps are more likely to maintain it.

Another key lesson: Some former vegetarians pointed to their inability to live up to demands for “purity” from certain portions of the veg community as a factor in their slide back to a non-veg diet. The angry, judgmental attitude that is unfortunately often associated with veganism has driven away even highly motivated, dedicated individuals, as we can see in this article.

Marketing research done in 2015 at the University of Arizona’s Eller Business School also provides a number of insights. Four investigative teams of MBA students were each tasked with studying a different facet of the issue. In their research, all four teams found that the general public views “veganism” as impossible, and “vegans” as annoying (not to put too fine a point on the findings). The group that focused on restaurant and grocery store research found that non-vegetarians are less likely to order a dish or buy a product if it is labeled “vegan,” compared to the same product labeled in a non-veg-specific way (e.g., “vegan burger” vs. “black bean burger”).

We also have a number of recent data points, as new companies enter the marketplace and existing companies move into this space. What these firms have in common is a desire to reach new non-veg individuals, rather than appealing to current vegans (a market so small that it is within the margin of error). For these companies, non-vegetarians are their path to profits and success – and the more they succeed in having new people buy their products, the fewer animals will suffer and die.

This article discusses the trend, and its lead graphic – a sign at Target – shows the conclusion reached by profit-motivated companies seeking to reach non-veg audiences. Their marketing research shows that “plant-based” is the phrase that will reach new people.

A new article in Forbes magazine explicitly addresses the debate about language. Of course, there are still those who are primarily and personally concerned with trying to alter the common perception of the word “vegan.” But the major up-and-coming companies, such as Hampton Creek Foods and Beyond Meat, which are seeking to reach new people right now – as well as the existing multinational corporations moving into this space – have all clearly chosen “plant-based” as the way forward.

I understand, and have written about, how inviting and even intoxicating it is to worry about words and defend definitions. It feels great to be part of an elite club, and ego is one of the most powerful drives, spawning the most amazing rationalizations. But if we care more about animals than ideology, and if we want to have the biggest real-world impact we possibly can, the first step is to set aside our egos and use the most inclusive and persuasive language possible.
bonding
-Matt

 

One Possible Future

With cruelty rampant on factory farms, and vegetarians currently a small minority, it is easy to dismiss the hope for a truly compassionate world. “My Uncle Dick hunts, and my cousin Jeb is always mocking me for being vegan. You’re crazy if you think they will ever change!”

These are legitimate concerns. However, it is nevertheless possible to achieve our goals – and much more quickly than we imagine.

Taking a longer perspective can help guide our advocacy. Society has advanced an incredible amount in just the last few centuries. Even though democracy was first proposed in ancient Greece, only during the eighteenth century did humanity see the hints of a democratic system. Only recently was slavery abolished in the industrialized world. It was not until the last century that child labor was ended in Europe and North America, child abuse was criminalized, and women were allowed to vote. Some minorities have attained more equal rights only in the last few decades or even the last few years.

It is hard to comprehend just how much society has changed in recent history. Prejudices we can hardly fathom today were completely accepted just decades ago. For example, if we read what was written and said about slavery – fewer than 150 years ago – the defenders were not just ignorant racists, but admired politicians, civic and religious leaders, and learned intellectuals. What is horrifying to us now was once not only accepted, but respected.

However slow our progress may feel, we are advancing at lightning speed compared to past social justice movements. A century ago, almost no animals received any protection whatsoever from abuse. Now, according to a Gallup poll, 96 percent of Americans want to see animals protected from abuse, and 32 percent believe that animals deserve “the exact same rights as people to be free from harm and exploitation.” Until 1990, only a single ballot initiative to protect animals that had passed at a state level – just one! Since 1990, animal advocates have passed dozens, including several directly abolishing some of the worst abuses on factory farms.

Not only do the vast majority of people oppose cruelty to animals, many question eating animals, at least on some level. In 2011, Grist’s Tom Laskawy reviewed a survey from agribusiness front group Center for Food Integrity: “The study’s analysis notes that 51 percent strongly agree that they have ‘no problem’ eating meat and dairy. It’s still a majority, but the number is down a full 12 percent since 2007.” Consumers losing faith in Big Food.

Thus, the discussion now must focus on helping people see that eating meat violates their own principles. This effort is only just beginning. In the 1980s, most animal advocacy in the U.S. was focused on fur and vivisection, mostly ignoring the roughly 99 percent of animals who are butchered for food. Only relatively recently have more individuals and groups focused on this ninety-nine percent by exposing the cruelty of factory farms and promoting compassionate eating.

In large part because of this shift in advocacy, factory farms – which most people knew nothing about 10 or 20 years ago – are now considered by many to be ethical abominations to many. As noted in The Animal Activist’s Handbook:

Twenty years ago, few people had heard the word “vegan.” Finding mock meats and soymilk was nearly impossible. According to market research by Mintel, “Until the mid-1990s, change was slow in coming to the world of vegetarian foods, and many average consumers relegated ‘vegetarian products’ to a counter-cultural movement, not a mainstream trend.”

Today, even cousin Jeb doesn’t need “vegan” explained to him. You can find veggie burgers, soymilk, and various other convenience foods in most grocery stores. And plant-based meats, milks, and cheeses is a huge trend across the market.

As we continue our efforts, more plant-based products arrive on the market every month. Having convenient options available is vital, as it makes it easier for new people to try and, more importantly, to stick with a compassionate diet. As more people sample plant-based meats and other products, competition will continue to increase the supply and variety, improving quality and driving down prices. This cycle of growing numbers of vegetarians and the increasing convenience of vegetarian eating is self-reinforcing. Essentially, the technology of vegetarian meats and other foods is both driven by and a driver of moral progress.

If we continue to expand and refine our advocacy, the growth of compassionate eating will accelerate to a tipping point, where opposition to factory farms and the adoption of plant-based foods become the “norms” among influential groups. Legislation, as it usually does, will continue to follow these evolving norms, and we’ll see more of animal agriculture’s worst practices outlawed and abolished – something that has already begun. Corporate practices will also continue to adjust to the demands of an increasingly aware market.

At the same time, powerful economic forces will kick in, because ultimately, meat is inefficient. It is more efficient to eat plant foods directly, rather than feeding plant foods to animals and then eating some of the animals’ flesh. Of course, people aren’t going to substitute tofu for meat, but that is not the choice they’ll be making. Food science has advanced such that the best plant-based meats are able to satisfy even hardcore carnivores. Products including deli slices and strips from Tofurky, burgers from Beyond Meat, Gimme Lean sausage and ground beef, Gardein’s fish fillets, and many others clearly show that giving up meat is now not a deprivation.

The faster the growth in the number of people making compassionate choices, the faster plant-based meats will improve in taste, become cheaper, and be found in far more places. (Compare a 2016 Impossible Burger to a 2006 Boca Burger to a 1986 Nature Burger, and imagine how good a 2026 veggie burger will be!)

We are now challenged to expand the plant-based market by explaining to more meat eaters the reasons for choosing compassion, while exposing them to new – though similar – products. The more rapidly we do this, the sooner cruelty-free eating will be widespread.

After his first heart attack, Uncle Dick will shift over to plant-based meats that have no cholesterol or saturated or trans fats and are high in omega-3s. Cousin Jeb’s second wife – a vegetarian since seeing an online video in 2003 – will use that as an excuse to only cook meat-free meals, and Jeb will hardly notice the difference! Their daughter Barbara will grow up to oversee McDonald’s shift to non-animal chicken in their sandwiches.

Despite the current horror and continued suffering, if we take the long view and are willing to commit to the work that needs to be done, we should be deeply optimistic. Animal liberation can be the future. With our efforts, it could be achieved with a whimper, not a bang. Change will come not by revolution, but through person-by-person outreach progressing hand in hand with advances in technology, leading slowly but inexorably to a new norm that, to most people, hardly seems different. But an unfathomable amount of suffering will be prevented.

It is up to us to make this happen.

MattChicago2016-Matt Ball

Initial version published in 2006 as “A Roadmap to Animal Liberation,” also published in The Accidental Activist

 

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.”

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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.

It would be so amazing if everyone would stop engaging in internecine debates.

Tobias Leenaert, a frequent guest poster here and the brains at Vegan Strategist, recently did an extended interview with Matt Ball, which we’re reproducing here. Thanks to Tobias, and to Bruce, Ellen, and Anne for helping.

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 never able to eat again, and slowly starved to death. Jane ended up stuffed into a tiny wire cage with Becky, Arlene, Megan, Tracy, and Lynn. 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:

matt ball choiceWe can spend our very limited time and resources worrying about, arguing about, and attacking each other over words and definitions.
Or we can focus all of our efforts 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 response 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 attractive examples and effective 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.

matt ball
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.

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.


*I am happy to say that this interrogator and I are now friends, and she now regrets asking that question years ago.

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.”

matt ball2
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 from 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 that instead of complaining, we need 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 actual 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?

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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 often emphasize 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.

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:

aa handboekIf 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.

If you don’t want to buy a book, A Meaningful Life is a good start. This video is a quick summary of what I’ve learned in the past 30 years.

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Can Our Choices Make a Difference?

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Talk, as prepared, for Madison, WI, and Chicago, IL, June 2016.
-Matt Ball

Let’s start with a pop quiz. How many vegans does it take to change a lightbulb?

LightbulbLightbulbs aren’t vegan!

For some of us, the question, “Can our choices make a difference?” seems silly. Of course our choices make a difference! A lot of people, though, think that in a world of seven billion people, what is actually silly is to think that one person’s choices can make a difference.

A good friend of mine, Jason Gaverick Matheny, wrote a scholarly analysis, Expected Utility, Contributory Causation, and Vegetarianism, that was published in a peer reviewed journal. In that paper, he lays out calculations that indicate our choices supposedly do make a difference. 

However, I don’t know many people who choose what food to buy based on a utilitarian calculation of weighted probabilities and Bayes’ Theorem. For example, I stopped eating animals thirty years ago because I realized I couldn’t consider myself a good person if I was paying others to raise and butcher animals simply so I could enjoy a taste of flesh. Actually making a difference in the real world wasn’t a consideration.

This is a good example of my early days: I was concerned with being “right.”

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I wanted to “win an argument with a meat eater.” I wanted to ridicule meat eaters. I wasn’t focused on actually changing the world, actually reducing the number of animals suffering.

Contrary to my approach then, Peter Singer took this question seriously in his book Animal Liberation. He was sympathetic to the idea that one person, acting in isolation, may very well not make a difference.

I can see this now. Even if we are the strictest vegan, some of our economic activity eventually pays the salaries of non-vegetarians, allowing them to buy more meat. In the end, the only way our food choices could have absolutely minimal negative impact would be if we didn’t exist.

So let’s set non-existence as our baseline.

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Can we do better than that, in terms of making the world a better place?

Let me try to answer that by starting with some history.

When I stopped eating animals, I was simply angry.

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As I said, I wanted to fight with meat eaters – attack and mock them. I obsessed and worried about abstractions and words and principles. I argued about exploitation, oppression, liberation.

The single most important lesson I’ve learned since then is that the irreducible heart of what matters is suffering. Back then, although I was sure I knew everything, I really didn’t know anything about suffering. Since then, though, I’ve developed a chronic disease, and experienced times when I thought I was going to die, times when I wished I would die.

Back in the mid-1980s, I didn’t take suffering seriously. Now, however, knowing what suffering really is, and knowing how much there is in the world, all my previous concerns seem – well, to put it kindly, silly.

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Today, I realize that our individual day-to-day food choices matter very little compared to the impact we can potentially have with our example, our advocacy, and our donations.

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So let me summarize, really quickly, a few facts and statistics from the past 30 years that can help us make a real, meaningful difference in the real world.

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You’ve probably all seen this graph from Animal Charity Evaluators. I know you can’t see it clearly, but the take-away is that to a first approximation, every animal killed in the United States is a farm animal.

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Compare that to this second graph, which shows where animal-related charitable donations go. Now, farm animals are the tiny sliver in the bottom right. In short, when trying to make a difference for animals, we’re working with one hand tied behind our backs, because resources are in no way allocated proportionally.

Not surprisingly, we’ve not done the best job.

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Here we see the results of the Vegetarian Resource Group’s surveys of the last sixteen years (without error bars, which are huge). Although from within the vegan bubble, it can feel as though there are tons more vegans, the actual surveys of the actual population in the United States shows no clear growth in the percentage of the US population that is vegetarian. Or, to look at it on the appropriate scale:

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In terms of meat consumption, it is even worse.

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This graph shows per capita meat consumption in the US. While beef has declined, chicken consumption has more than doubled. Given how small birds are, this means many many more animals are dying every year, compared to when Peter Singer published Animal Liberation.

As an aside, I know we all have a much greater affinity for mammals than for birds.

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But not only are chickens being killed in vastly greater numbers than cows or pigs, they are suffering absolute horrible cruelty.

Here is one more piece of bad news.

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According to a number of surveys, including the most recent one by Faunalytics, the vast majority of people who go vegetarian or vegan eventually go back to eating animals. More than four out of every five individuals who go veg eventually quit!

It would be bad enough to realize that we’re throwing away more than 80% of advocacy efforts. But it is actually worse than that. Everyone who quits being veg becomes an antispokesperson against compassionate eating – a public (and often loud) example opposing taking any steps that help animals.

So with all that said, what do we know that might actually help us?

First is a graph from Ben Davidow.

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This shows the relative number of animals harmed by the standard American diet. And you can see that the vast, vast majority of those animals are birds.

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Looking at it a different way is this graph from Mark Middleton at AnimalVisuals, showing the number of deaths caused by producing a million calories of different food, including grains, vegetables, and fruits. Mark explicitly concludes, “Leaving chicken and eggs out of our diets will have the greatest effect on reducing the suffering and death caused by what we eat.”

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Now I don’t want to just focus on death in and of itself. I would much rather be a field mouse living free until killed by a combine harvesting soybeans, compared to a chicken whose entire life is utter agony.

And I don’t mean that as hyperbole.

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Harish Sethu of Counting Animals did an analysis of how many chickens actually suffer to death before making it to the slaughterhouse. These birds die of disease, or are killed because they aren’t growing quickly enough, or have their hearts just give out, or their legs break such that they can’t make it to water. Harish’s calculations show that so many chickens suffer to death that their number dwarfs all the animals killed for fur, in shelters, and in labs, combined. Again – this isn’t the number of chickens killed overall, just the number who suffer to death before even getting to slaughter.

The numbers are incredibly stark.

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Again, based on research by Harish, Joe Espinosa notes that the average American consumes about two dozen land animals a year. If one person decided to give up eating birds – just birds – they go from being responsible for the deaths of over two dozen land animals a year to fewer than one. Fewer than one!

However, the converse is also true. Anything that might possibly lead someone to start to replace red meat with chickens will lead to a lot more suffering and killing, as noted by Ginny Messina:

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So with all that said, let’s get to some good news!

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Previously, we saw a graph that showed the number of chickens being slaughtered going way up.

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But in recent years, this trend has reversed somewhat (upper right).

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The decline might not seem like a lot, but given the size of birds and the numbers we were starting with, a small decline translates to many fewer animals suffering – hundreds of millions fewer.

So how does this specifically inform our advocacy?

I would love to say that the decline in the number of land animals killed in the US has been driven by a rise in the number of vegetarians and vegans.

However, as various researchers have pointed out, the change has actually been driven by meat reducers – people who are eating more meat-free meals, but aren’t (yet) vegetarian.

Turning to Faunalytics’ study on recidivism, their data shows that people who went veg for health reasons are the ones who go back to eating meat.

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The single biggest difference in motivation between those who quit being vegetarian and those who stay vegetarian is: concern for animals (42% difference).

This is backed up by research by The Humane League Labs, which showed that concern for animals is what inspires lasting dietary change.

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So clearly, we need to keep animals at the center of our efforts to help animals!

Research has also told us more about how we can refine our message in such a way as to get the most useful change for animals in the real world.

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The Humane League Labs specifically pointed out that we should not focus on dairy when initially dealing with the general public. Not only because of the numbers, but because it is the last thing people think they can give up. Rather, we should focus on chickens, which people can give up and actually makes a significant difference in terms of the numbers of animals suffering. (Of course, this is absolutely not meant to dismiss or downplay the suffering of dairy cows and calves. Rather, this is simply a discussion of how best we can promote a message that will have the biggest possible impact in actually reducing suffering.)

This relates to research I was a part of in 2014 at the University of Arizona.

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One of the many interesting take-aways from those four studies was that each one of them found that the general public thinks veganism is impossible, and vegans are, to put it kindly, annoying. This obviously doesn’t matter if we only want to promote veganism regardless of the consequences. But if we actually want to make a difference and reduce the amount of suffering in the world, we should take note of this.

Similarly, many people quit being vegetarian because they found it too hard to live up to the demand for purity.

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Again, if we only care about the purity of those who call themselves vegan, then the fact that we’re driving people away is irrelevant. But if we actually want to reduce suffering, we should do everything possible to both embrace and encourage everyone…

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…instead of reinforcing people’s stereotypes and trying to build the smallest, angriest, most exclusive club in the world.

The upside is that there is a great deal opportunity out there.

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A number of surveys (including the University of Arizona study, quoted in the graphic above) have discovered a shocking willingness among the general population to reduce meat consumption.

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And if we are really going to help animals, rather than just police our club, we can reach these members of the general public with an honest, realistic message that actually has a profound impact for animals – reducing and eliminating chickens from our diet.

How can we best do this?

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I know this slide from the Humane League Labs is hard to read, but it shows that of the advocacy tools available to us, movies, conversations, websites, and online video have proven to be the most impactful.

 

Now I know this is a lot to take in in only a few minutes.

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But I find it very encouraging to realize we have so much information available to us, such that we know what positive, constructive steps we can take to help change the world for animals.

Two last thoughts. The first is my absolute favorite quote from Gene Baur.

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Even while building the world’s leading farm animal sanctuary, Gene was looking at what will be necessary to make sure that one day, as soon as possible, sanctuaries are no longer needed. We simply must go upstream and end the demand for animal products.

And finally a quick note as to why this matters.

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For us here, we can debate and argue, philosophize and condemn. We’re all relatively safe and well off, enjoying our sparring and our agreements, our discussion about who’s attacking whom on Facebook, how angry we are about the latest tweet, how delicious the new vegan product is.

On the other hand, it is a cliche, of course, to say that this is a matter of gravest consequences for animals.

As much as I would love to think otherwise, we currently can’t do everything. We do not have infinite time, or infinite resources. But we have to realize that when we choose to do one thing, we are choosing not to do another. We need to choose wisely; we are the animals’ voice. We are their hope.

We can each strive to make choices that have the greatest possible impact, that reduce the most suffering, regardless of labels and definitions, regardless of how it makes us look or feel, regardless of popularity. We can make a real difference. We can change the world! Thank you.