The Essence of Earth Day: Equitable Ethics vs. Easy Environmentalism

It is easy for us to criticize the prejudices of our grandfathers, from which our fathers freed themselves.

It is more difficult to distance ourselves from our own views, so that we can dispassionately search for prejudices among the beliefs and values we hold.
—Peter Singer, Practical Ethics

Many people express concern for the environment, and believe Earth Day is a good opportunity to draw attention to various issues. Sadly, yet not surprisingly, Earth Day has become largely a meaningless event, with just about everyone from the strictest vegan to the largest multinational corporation claiming to support “the Earth.”

But of course, the planet itself – the mass that circles the Sun – is in no danger. There is no way we can destroy a hunk of rock that weighs 13,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 pounds. (That’s 13 septillion pounds.)

Let me emphasize this point again, as it has generated about as much angry feedback as anything I’ve ever written: “How can you say the Earth is in no danger?? What about fisheries’ collapse/ atmospheric pollution/ rainforest destruction/ topsoil erosion???”

But none of these are “the Earth.”

The oceans could empty and the atmosphere blow away, and the planet would still exist.

Only the razor-thin biosphere matters, because it is where we and our fellow feeling beings reside.

This indicates what really matters. The bottom line is the lives of sentient beings.

This is not something most people want to face, though. To avoid considering all our fellow creatures – and the implications that would have for our personal lives – many simply proceed as if any and every environmental problem were equally pressing, and anything “green” equally commendable.

When you look at what has become of “environmentalism” in the U.S., the emphasis tends to be either on the feel-good-about-ourselves (“I recycled!” “I bought a hybrid!”), or on condemning the “other” (“British Petroleum is evil!” “The government must do something about global warming!”). The avoidance of an honest, meaningful analysis of the fundamental bottom line isn’t surprising. It is much simpler to parrot slogans, follow painless norms such as recycling, vilify faceless corporations, and demand that the government take action.

All of this makes it easy to continue the status quo and still feel smugly green and good.

Personal “environmentalism” is often nothing more than an expression of self-interest, just another laundry list of “we want.” We want to feel good about ourselves for doing relatively painless things. We want charismatic megafauna to entertain us. We want wild spaces for our use. We want clean air and water for our children.

But ethics aren’t a question of what “we want.” We can be truly thoughtful individuals and go beyond personal preferences, feel-good campaigns, and the vilification of faceless others. We can each recognize that sayings and slogans are superficial, intentions and ideology irrelevant.

What matters isn’t this rock we call Earth. What matters are the sentient beings who call this rock home. We can’t care about “the environment” as though it is somehow an ethically relevant entity in and of itself. Rather, what matters are the impacts our choices have for our fellow feeling beings.

In the end, all that matters are the consequences our actions have for all animals.

All creatures – not just wild or endangered animals – desire to live free from suffering and exploitation.

Cruelty is wrong, whether the victim is an eagle or a chicken, a wolf or a pig. The rest is just noise and obfuscation.

We simply can’t consider ourselves ethical if we make choices that lead to more suffering for these creatures. And the greatest amount of suffering on Earth is caused when we choose to eat animals instead of a cruelty-free alternative.

A compassionate diet is a statement against “we want.” It is the embodiment of a consistent, universal ethic. Choosing to live with compassion is a real choice with real consequences – a way to oppose and actively reduce violence, to make the world a truly better place for all. When we choose to live consistently and ethically, we can look in the mirror, knowing we are good people making choices that won’t lead to more suffering for our fellow feeling beings.

But we know that our food choices are only the beginning. There are many further opportunities to make the world a better place. Even if our food choices aren’t directly causing animals to be slaughtered, our other choices – optimizing our example, time, and resources to have the greatest impact – have consequences even more important than what we eat.

This is why we are so honored to work with all of you, who recognize that every day is a day to make a real difference.

-Matt Ball
Director of Engagement and Outreach

Is Being a Vegetarian Important?

Have you ever been in so much pain that you thought you were going to die?

Have you ever suffered so much that you wanted to die?

Every year, many unseen individuals in the U.S. do suffer to death. Slowly. Excruciatingly. Pigs, transported hundreds and hundreds of miles in open trucks without food or water, freeze to death. Chickens raised to be “meat,” genetically manipulated to grow unnaturally fast, have their legs break under their own weight, leaving them incapacitated and unable to get to food or water.

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It can be shocking to learn that, even before they have a chance to reach slaughter, modern agribusiness is so inherently brutal that it will cause countless individuals to die agonizing deaths. As Michael Pollan wrote in the New York Times:

More than any other institution, the American industrial animal farm offers a nightmarish glimpse of what capitalism can look like in the absence of moral or regulatory constraint. Here in these places life itself is redefined — as protein production — and with it suffering. That venerable word becomes “stress,” an economic problem in search of a cost-effective solution, like tail-docking or beak-clipping. Our own worst nightmare such a place may well be; it is also real life for the billions of animals unlucky enough to have been born beneath these grim steel roofs, into the brief, pitiless life of a “production unit.”

For a growing number of people, these facts compel them to stop eating chickens, pigs, ducks, cows, and turkeys. More and more people are making a daily, public statement against the breathtaking viciousness behind meat production.

For me, being a vegetarian is not the conclusion of an impartial set of utilitarian calculations, nor the endorsement of “animal rights.” Rather, being a vegetarian is a statement about the person I want to be. I could not live with myself if I were to be a part of such cruelty to thinking, feeling individuals.

But of course, not everyone makes this choice. With factory farms concealed, slaughterhouses hidden, and society structured around consuming faceless, disembodied, sanitized “meat,” we can easily ignore reality and just go along with the crowd. And if confronted with the hidden realities of modern agribusiness, we can seek out the “less bad” and call it good.

Michael Pollan, quoted earlier about the horrors of big ag, isn’t a vegetarian. In fact, he actively mocks the “moral certainty” of vegetarians. He fabricates fantastic fantasies to continue to justify eating animals. For example, he says that thinking in terms of individuals is human-centric, and that instead, we need to think in terms of species’ interests. Of course, this is exactly backwards. “Species” is a human construct, an abstraction that inherently can’t have interests. Only individuals have the capacity to experience pleasure or suffer pain and thus have interests. To argue that we should eat the flesh of our fellows to advance the “interests” of a species is so absurd, such a complete inversion of reality, it is truly stunning that a seemingly intelligent person would be willing to put forth such ludicrous nonsense. Pollan is the perfect example of Cleveland Amory’s observation that people have an infinite capacity to rationalize, especially when it comes to something they want to eat.

This may seem an unnecessarily harsh condemnation of a man who at least is willing to write about factory farms. But Pollan not only mocks vegetarians via laughable straw-man arguments, he even endorses the brutal act of force-feeding geese to create foie gras! This level of repulsive rationalization should be exposed for what it is. Pollan’s unwillingness to honestly consider vegetarianism, combined with his firsthand experience of “our own worst nightmare,” leads him to praise “happy meat” from “humane” farms. Having had the time and resources to investigate the various farms, the pinnacle of Pollan’s praise is Polyface Farm, where “animals can be animals,” living, according to Pollan, true to their nature.

So what is Polyface like? Rabbits are kept in small suspended wire cages. Chickens are crowded into mobile wire cages, confined without the ability to nest or the space needed to establish a pecking order. All year ‘round, pigs and cattle are shipped in open trucks to conventional slaughterhouses. Seventy-two hours before their slaughter, birds are crated with seven other birds. After three days without food, they are grabbed by their feet, upended, and, without any stunning, have their throats slit.

This is the system that Pollan proclaims praiseworthy. While mocking vegetarians, he argues that we should ethically and financially endorse Polyface’s treatment of these individuals.

But really, how can we expect better? In the end, Polyface’s view is the same as Tyson’s: These individual animals are, ultimately, simply meat to be sold for a profit. It is logically and emotionally impossible for there to be any real respect — any true, fundamental concern for the interests of these living, breathing, thinking, and feeling individuals — when they are being raised only to be butchered and sold for maximum profit. If we insist that we must consume actual animal flesh instead of a vegetarian alternative, it is naïve, at best, to believe that any system will truly take good care of the animals we pay it to slaughter.

image001See also: Humane Meat and the Arc of History

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If, in the end, you see an individual as meat, you will treat them as such.

Of course, I applaud anyone who looks honestly at “our worst nightmare” and begins to take steps toward more compassionate choices; most people find it easier to go along with the crowd.

Yet for those of us striving to live a truly moral life, it is important to avoid getting caught up in rationalizations. In the end, we have to address the most fundamental question: Do we respect individuals, or do we support slaughter? Details aside, the bottom line is that meat is the flesh of a unique individual — an individual who had thoughts and feelings, friends and fears, and who struggled and fought to stay alive.MattChicago2016

We can each recognize and respect these chickens, cows, ducks, pigs, and turkeys as the incredible individuals they are. We can recognize that rather than being food, if given the chance, they could each be a friend.

-Matt Ball

Ways to be Compassionate for Random Acts of Kindness Day

February 17 is Random Acts of Kindness Day! Celebrate this day (and every day!) by extending your kindness not only to the individuals around you, but also to actions that help keep the earth and all of its inhabitants healthy! Here are three ways we can celebrate and support farm animals:

  1. Share a #CompassionateMeal with a friend, neighbor, or coworker.

This day is the perfect opportunity to teach your friends, family, and community about why compassionate meals are important to you. Learn more here.

  1. Go veg for a meal … or a day!

Be kind to animals and the planet by cooking, baking, or exploring plant-based options in your area for one meal, or the whole day. You can find lots of easy, yet amazing recipes throughout the V-lish site, including the blog! Or use apps like Happy Cow to find cruelty-free restaurants in your area. Get creative, and be sure to share your creations and ideas with friends and family!

  1. Bring a compassionate meal to someone in need.

Pay it forward by sharing the meal you made above; taking someone in need out to dinner; or bringing warm, healthy, store-bought meals to someone in need.

 

What is Real Courage?

Meat eaters love to change the subject and complain about vegans’ sense of smug superiority. But I can say it is very likely that I truly am superior to most everyone reading this: I have made more mistakes.

I stopped eating animals back in the 1980s. In the years after that, I made an absurd number of mistakes. Probably the main reason I wanted to publish The Animal Activist’s Handbook is to try to help others avoid at least some of the mistakes I made.

One of my biggest mistakes was lacking courage, but perhaps not in the way you think.

Over the years, people advised me to say I was vegan for my health. “That way,” I was told, “people won’t be threatened by you. Everyone cares about their health, so they won’t feel judged.”

Of course, I didn’t go along with that. I protested, “But I’m vegan for so many reasons! The Animals! The Earth! Human health!” Back then, our attitude was to “win an argument with a meat eater” (the title of a famous poster of the time). The approach was to try to overwhelm a meat eater with an endless list of what we believed were “facts,” which simplified to: all ills in the world, from impotence to hunger to ozone depletion to serial killings, were all because of meat.

Do you see the problem? It was all about me: Why I was vegan, how I was so right, how I needed to win an argument, because meat eaters were so very wrong, wrong, wrong!

Now, in sympathy with Young Matt and the rest of us back then, there really was no other example. We all spouted endless claims of water usage and declining fertility. No matter how absurd a claim, if something sounded even vaguely anti-meat or pro-vegetables, we parroted it like the indoctrinated missionaries we were.

On a basic human level, this is understandable. We were a tiny minority, surrounded by meat eaters – meat eaters who often mocked us. You can see why we were so eager, so desperate to justify ourselves, to strike back, to try to belittle those who belittled us, to win.

Of course, looking at it rationally today, each of us knows that any discomfort we experience is nothing compared to what farmed animals endure. But to be able to take the animals’ perspective would have required me to think beyond myself and my self-interest.

I regret my lack of courage, my inability to get past my need to justify myself, praise veganism, and blame meat eaters for every ill.

Of course, if you had pointed this out to me back then, I would have been outraged: “I am courageous! Do you know how hard it is to be vegan in the world? Look at this sheet of ‘facts’: meat eating is terrible!”

My interactions with meat eaters consisted of preaching an endless stream of horrors, pontificating: “You are causing all this! You need to be Just . . . Like . . . Me!” It was so important to chant, to insist, to promote and pursue purity – much more important than working constructively to bring about actual change.

Don’t get me wrong! I’m not saying that being vegan isn’t good or important. But however important our personal, day-to-day choices are, choosing effective advocacy for the animals is far, far more important. However much good we accomplish by being vegan every day of the rest of our entire lives . . . well, we can do more good than that in just an hour of honest, psychologically-sound activism – or in just a minute, by donating to effective advocacy.

To really accomplish good in the world, we can’t be like Young Matt. We can’t focus on what sounds good to us. We can’t just rattle off facts that we find compelling, repeat anything that seems to justify our veganism, latch on to the latest “study” that “proves” what we want to believe.

And we can’t just “do something, do anything.” Instead, we have to look at the overall, real-world impact of our advocacy, and compare those consequences to other alternatives we could pursue with our limited time and resources.

This isn’t easy, in part because it is just so easy to fall into the trap of thinking, “People are selfish, I’ll appeal to self-interest!” Or taking anecdotes as data: “Marcie went vegan for reason X, so everyone must promote X!” Effective advocates look beyond what we think or what motivates us and those around us. We need to put aside what makes veganism sound good to us and focus on what will move non-vegetarians to take steps that actually end suffering.

For example, we can’t focus on something that seems non-controversial, something that seems to appeal to everyone, if doing so might encourage someone to stop eating big animals and instead eat more birds and fishes; anyone who just gives up red meat causes much, much more suffering.

In other words, we must consider all the actual consequences of our advocacy.

I don’t mean to preach. I wasted so many opportunities; turned off so many people. It took me years – and the help of truly courageous people – before I could set aside my insecurities and ego and personal needs, and focus instead on practical, realistic advocacy that actually helps animals.

Yet I don’t know what I could have said to Young Matt. Three decades ago, I was so angry, so filled with the odd combination of insecurity masked by self-righteousness.

It was an intoxicating siren song. It still is.

But let me leave you with a few decades of data: Since I came to the first March for the Animals in 1990, I have met hundreds of vegans who burned with an absolutist flame. Many of them loudly attacked other vegans as pathetic sell-outs, gutless compromisers, collaborating capitalists, and welfarists.

MattChicago2016Few of them are around today. There are, of course, new adherents, new screamers and chanters, new Young Matts. But if you look, you’ll actually see a number of truly courageous people, people who have put aside their ego and are focused on helping the animals as much as possible, every day.

I hope you have more courage than I did, and will join with those who go beyond self-interest. Instead, we can do the real, concrete work: day-to-day, person-to-person outreach that is actually helping animals, literally changing the world.

-Matt Ball

Originally published in The Accidental Activist

Help End “One of the Worst Crimes in History”

Yuval Noah Harari, the author of Sapiens, took to the pages of The Guardian to make the case that Industrial farming is one of the worst crimes in history, and that the fate of industrially farmed animals is one of the most pressing ethical questions of our time. In this article, he addresses the common claim that animals have to be treated well in order to “produce.”

What makes the existence of domesticated farm animals particularly cruel is not just the way in which they die but above all how they live. The root of the problem is that domesticated animals have inherited from their wild ancestors many physical, emotional and social needs that are redundant in farms. Farmers routinely ignore these needs without paying any economic price. They lock animals in tiny cages, mutilate their horns and tails, separate mothers from offspring, and selectively breed monstrosities. The animals suffer greatly, yet they live on and multiply.

Kiev of Farm SanctuaryAt Farm Sanctuary, we recognize that each of these animals is an individual, with the ability and desire to have friends, love their offspring, and enjoy life.

One thing we can each do today is to share this video, What Came Before, with our social media friends. It tells a powerful story that can help more people start to make compassionate choices.

Thanks!

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.

Christina Cuenca, Hero of Compassion

We are excited to continue our Heroes of Compassion program, where we recognize 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 Christina Cuenca, who has been unstoppable as Farm Sanctuary’s Walk for Farm Animals coordinator in Seattle since 2013. She is a board member of the Northwest Animal Rights Network and Generation Veggie. After the birth of their son, Luciano, Christina and husband Fernando formed the Seattle Vegan Families Group. Christina is currently grants manager for a local nonprofit organization, as well as an aspiring poet. In her spare time, Christina enjoys hiking, reading, rummaging through thrift stores and, of course, strong coffee.
seattle-walk

Cultivating Compassionate Communities: What does “living compassionately” mean to you? What inspired you to start down this path?

In late 2000, I came across Erik Marcus’ book, Vegan: The New Ethics of Eating. I couldn’t believe I had been virtually unaware of the realities of factory farming, and I remember feeling sucker-punched in the gut. I finished the last page of the book, emptied out my fridge and pantry, and became vegan on the spot.

For me, living compassionately means more than just not exploiting animals. It means thinking about the world and all its living beings as connected, valuable and deserving of respect and consideration. It means being accountable for the decisions we make that affect others and our planet. It means community taking care of one another during difficult times, and celebrating each other’s accomplishments with sincerity and joy. It means showing up when it matters, in whatever way that you can.

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

I was so angry about what had been hidden from me, my total ignorance about where my food came from, that I didn’t really have a transition period. I finished that first book, and said “no more.” Since then, I’ve expanded my knowledge to include an understanding of the environmental implications of eating meat and how capitalism drives the decisions we make (or are made for us) about our food. The oppression and exploitation of animals does not occur in a vacuum, and I’ve realized it’s important for us to continue to engage in complicated, messy dialogue. Don’t be afraid to have those conversations.

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

The greatest challenge for me has been navigating the ups and downs of feeling like you’re making a difference one day, to feeling like you aren’t making even the smallest ripple of impact the next. I am often overwhelmed by the apathy that is so pervasive in our society, the overconsumption of our natural resources, the out of control consumerism, the disregard for anything other than “me and my own.” And it’s not easy to re-center and re-focus. I often find myself wondering: What more I can do? How can I be more efficient so I can take something else on? I’ve gotten a bit more adept at managing this over the years, especially after having a child, but it’s a constant struggle.

the-cuencas

What advice would you give to an aspiring activist?

First and foremost, find your circle. Find ways to connect and cultivate relationships with others who are fighting the same fight. The support you find within your community will help keep you energized and positive. Of course, it’s dangerously easy to have your worldview skewed when you are surrounded by only like-minded individuals, and our social media feeds only compound this. It’s important to step out of that safe bubble.

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

Farm Sanctuary is highlighted in Erik Marcus’ book. Living in New York at the time, Watkins Glen was an easy road trip away and I had the pleasure of staying in one of the adorably rustic red cabins. My time at the sanctuary was emotional and powerful. It was the first time I had been near a farm animal after becoming vegan, and the experience transformed my veganism from theory to the intimate.

christina-at-fs

After visiting the sanctuary, I attended a Walk for Farm Animals event, and was moved by the positive energy and the many compassionate people who came together to show their support for ending the abuse of animals on factory farms. While I had been vegan for years at this point, the experience sparked my animal activism. I moved to Seattle in 2008, attended Seattle’s first Walk for Farm Animals in 2011, and became a volunteer organizer for the event in 2013-2015.

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

My first adopted cat, Ashes, will always have a special place in my heart. She was full of attitude and zest, and I was crazy about her. We currently share our home with Sir Isaac Newton, a ball of orange-haired feline sweetness. He is one of those rare unicorn cats who loves belly rubs.

 

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?

During my one and only visit to the Watkins Glen shelter, I met Arbuckle. I sat with this blind and incredibly sweet cow for a while in the fields. I’ve never forgotten him.

How do you think things will change over the next 50 years or so?

Being a mother, much of my current activism focuses on building support and community for vegan families. My husband and I started a local meetup group for vegan families in Seattle, shortly after the birth of our son six years ago. Since that time, membership has exploded. I also work with Generation Veggie, an online resource for raising plant-powered kids. I see growing numbers of vegan children who are confident, proud, and vocal advocates for animals. I think we’ll continue to see compassionate vegan families become more mainstream, and this is an exciting shift. I also expect to see advancements in cultured meat, which has the potential to affect great change.

What is your favorite “main dish” recipe or meal? 

This changes fairly regularly, but right now I’m on an avocado toast craze. I can’t get enough.

Is there anything else you would like the Farm Sanctuary family to know? 

Here are a few other organizations that excite me:

www.generationveggie.org
www.narn.org
www.foodispower.org

 

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!

 

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!

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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.