Also, you might find this interview with Peter Singer to be interesting.
Have a great weekend!
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.
Given that this is the current reality, we have a difficult choice to make:
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”?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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?
VS: What is the number one piece of advice you would give to vegan activists?
Rather than considering how popular something is with your circle of friends, judge everything by the likely consequences your actions will have with non-vegetarians in the real world. To a first approximation, this will mean calculating how your actions will impact people’s consumption of chickens.
For more tips and suggestions, people can read my books and writings:
If you like a linear discussion, The Animal Activist’s Handbook is probably your best bet.
If you like collections of essays and short stories, The Accidental Activist.
Talk, as prepared, for Madison, WI, and Chicago, IL, June 2016.
Let’s start with a pop quiz. How many vegans does it take to change a lightbulb?
Lightbulbs 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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
In terms of meat consumption, it is even worse.
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.
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.
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 anti–spokesperson 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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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:
Previously, we saw a graph that showed the number of chickens being slaughtered going way up.
But in recent years, this trend has reversed somewhat (upper right).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
…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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
We are thrilled to introduce our new program, Heroes of Compassion, where we recognize people who are working tirelessly behind the scenes to help animals and make the world a more compassionate place.
Our first honoree is Jane Hoffman, Farm Sanctuary’s Board Secretary and Audit Committee Chair. Jane has been president and chair of the board of the Mayor’s Alliance for NYC’s Animals since its inception in 2002. The Mayor’s Alliance is a coalition of more than 150 animal rescue groups and shelters working to reduce the euthanasia of cats and dogs in New York City shelters. Jane is also a founding and current member of the Animal Law Committee of the NYC Bar Association, one of the first animal law committees in the country. She received the Annual Excellence in the Advancement of Animal Law Award from the American Bar Association’s Tort Trial & Insurance Practice Section (TIPS) in 2007, the very first year it was awarded. Prior to creating the Alliance, Jane served as an associate at the law firm of Simpson Thacher & Bartlett LLP and vice president and senior consultant at Handy Associates. Jane holds a J.D. degree from Brooklyn Law School, an M.L.S. degree from Long Island University, and a B.A. degree from Boston College.
Here is my interview with Jane; you can also read her profile at Animals of Farm Sanctuary:
Cultivating Compassionate Communities: What does the term “living compassionately” mean to you?
Jane Hoffman: Living compassionately means keeping your cruelty footprint as small as possible while living in the world as it is today.
CCC: What inspired you to start down this path?
I was asked to become involved with an organization, now defunct, called Legal Action for Animals, which was run by a wonderful lawyer named Jolene Marion (who passed away several years ago). That propelled me to become a founding member of the Animal Law Committee at the NYC Bar Association, which then lead me to co-found the Alliance for NYC’s Animals.
CCC: What was the transition like for you, and what did you learn that might be useful to people currently trying to make changes?
JH: It is vastly easier now to eat cruelty-free and live compassionately than it was even 10 years ago. I think you need to take the path to living compassionately at the pace that works for you and which you can sustain. But it’s important to remember that the more you try, even if you falter, the closer you are to the lifestyle you aspire to be living.
CCC: What has been most challenging about living a compassionate life?
JH: The most challenging thing has been not giving in to anger over the cruelty to non-human animals all around us every day and everywhere.
CCC: What advice would you give to an aspiring activist?
JH: Meet people where they are on their own path. Different points of view and different arguments appeal to different people, so be informed and be prepared to make your case.
CCC: How did you learn about Farm Sanctuary, and how did you get involved?
JH: I had known about Farm Sanctuary for years and did a very early Walk for Farm Animals years ago. And I am proud to say that I was the top fundraiser. I also visited Watkins Glen with a friend and stayed in the white house (which is no longer with us, having made way for the Melrose Small Animal Hospital). I remember waking up one morning and looking out at the duck pond, and later that day meeting Kevin the calf (above). Later, I was approached by David Wolfson, a legal colleague and Farm Sanctuary adviser, about joining Farm Sanctuary’s Board of Directors to help build the Board and the organization.
CCC: Has there been a specific animal in your life that has been especially meaningful to you?
JH: All of my many companion animals (cats and dogs) over the years have been special to me. But I have to say that a guinea pig named Ginny (above), who came into my life unexpectedly (don’t all rescue animals do that to some extent?) made a huge impression on me. What a big personality and intelligence in that tiny body…who knew?
CCC: Do you have a favorite resident at one of our sanctuaries, or a special affinity for a certain species of farm animal?
JH: I just love them all…cows and goats and chickens and turkeys and sheep and ducks and donkeys. They are all such individuals and make me so happy to see them safe and happy.
CCC: How do you think things will change over the next 50 years or so?
JH: My hope is that the governments of the world get their act together and take decisive and swift action to save the environment, and that we will have moved to a totally plant-based diet that is good for the earth and all animals…including the human race.
And that the need for farm sanctuaries ceases to exist.
CCC: What is your favorite “main dish” recipe or meal?
JH: The Seitan Scallopini served at Blossom Restaurant on Ninth Avenue and 22nd Street in New York City. It is a dish made with white wine, lemon & caper sauce, truffle mashed potatoes, and sautéed kale. You can see more at their website: http://www.blossomnyc.com/chelsea/
CCC: Is there anything else you would like the Farm Sanctuary family to know? Do you have a favorite website you would like to share?
JH: Well, obviously, my favorite websites are the Farm Sanctuary website and the website of the not-for-profit organization I run — the Mayor’s Alliance for NYC’s Animals, at http://www.animalalliancenyc.org/
As we recently saw in this letter from Gene Baur, the USDA is in the process of producing new regulations to govern the treatment of animals raised “organic.”
Big Ag has tried to hijack the regulatory process at the proposal stage, and is now trying to get the Senate to weaken the regulations before they even take effect. Please click here to find your senators’ contact information, and ask them not to allow Big Ag to undermine the new organic standards. Here is sample language:
Dear Senator X,
I am writing today as your constituent, asking you to oppose any effort to weaken the USDA’s proposed animal treatment standards for organic farms (AMS-NOP-15-0012).
The USDA’s organic label should signify a higher standard of care than conventional animal production. I’m sure you agree that all animals deserve enough space, outdoor access, and environmental enrichment to perform natural behaviors. I strongly oppose any efforts to undermine the USDA’s new rules, and urge you to oppose it as well.
Thank you for your time.
There have been a lot of great stories lately; here are a few.
We have the opportunity, right now, to give farm animals a voice in Washington, DC!
As you are probably aware, the “organic” label fails to protect farm animals from horrendous cruelty, and consumers are being misled. The USDA is considering standards to address the welfare of animals in organic production and is now accepting public comments. These standards are too weak, but they are still a positive step.
Although the proposed organic standards are minimal, not surprisingly, Big Ag is pushing back, trying to prevent any consideration of farm animal interests. Please join the discussion! From today through July 13, you can add your comments by going here and clicking on the “Comment Now!” button.
Some sample language is below; you can also read my comments here. Thank you for giving our friends a voice!
I am writing today to express my concern about the inhumane treatment of farm animals in organic production, and to urge the USDA to strengthen the National Organic Program’s proposed rule giving consideration to farm animals raised for the USDA Organic label.
The growth in demand for products labeled as humane, sustainable, natural, free-range, cage-free, organic, etc., illustrates that consumers oppose the inhumane treatment of farm animals. They want meaningful alternatives.
For years, U.S. citizens have assumed that meat, milk, and eggs labeled as organic came from animals treated significantly better than in conventional systems, despite the lack of clear and consistent standards protecting farm animals. I am grateful that the USDA is proposing steps to address this problem, although more needs to be done to better align organic labels with consumers’ expectations.
Like all animals, cows, chickens, pigs, turkeys, and other farm animals deserve to be treated with respect and compassion, and their physical and emotional needs should be met. Farm animals are social creatures; their relationships with each other should be honored, and they should be afforded healthy environments that allow them not only to survive, but to flourish.
Thank you for your time and thoughtful consideration.