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.

 

For Farm Animals Every Day

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Below is the full interview with Matt Ball, Farm Sanctuary’s Director of Engagment and Outreach, for Every Day is Animal Advocacy Day

1. What brought you to Farm Sanctuary?  When did you start?

Gosh, I’ve been a fan of Farm Sanctuary almost since it started. As soon as there were cabins, Anne and I took our belated honeymoon there (1993).

I didn’t become friends with Gene until April 1997, when he and I were at a Nalith-sponsored conference in the Finger Lakes region. I’ll never forget it. My project at the time was to distribute as many pro-veg booklets as possible. At one point, Gene held up a copy of the booklet and said, “We can all agree that we need to get more of these out there.” It really showed his generosity. Ever since, Gene has been one of the warmest, most supportive people I’ve known in the animal advocacy movement.

2. How long have you been vegan, and what inspired you to make that switch?

Freshman year of college (1986), my roommate was an older transfer student. He was also a vegetarian, and he made me his personal project. I would love to say I went vegan as soon as I learned about what happens on factory farms, but as I write about in one of my books, this wasn’t the case at all. Rather, I went vegetarian and then vegan in fits and starts. It is for this and other reasons that I’m very sympathetic to people who are (initially) resistant to the message; who make incremental change while rationalizing other actions. So although all psychological research supports it as well, Farm Sanctuary’s approach of meeting people where they are has a personal resonance with me.

It is nice to be able to say I first stopped eating animals the year Farm Sanctuary was founded!

3. Describe a typical day.

My day-to-day responsibilities include the Compassionate Communities Campaign and Farm Sanctuary’s online outreach. The former requires keeping up with news for the CCC Facebook page, the CCC blog, and alerts to our members, in order to make sure our activist members are engaged and able to make a difference day to day. As part of this, I represent Farm Sanctuary in a variety of coalitions, so I’m often on conference calls or reviewing email alerts. I also have been developing materials for the CCC.

Online outreach is a fun, multivariate problem. I can create multiple ads and choose different target audiences, and then monitor which perform best. I’m always iterating on this, to make sure we are “spending thousands to reach millions.” I also monitor the comment threads to try to make sure things don’t get out of hand, and to give encouragement, too.

One of the best parts of my job is to watch what Manager of Engagement Strategy Wendy Matthews comes up with for her various projects, like V-lish. I can always expect innovative, creative, and fresh ideas from her. Sometimes, I’m even able to contribute a useful bit of feedback here or there. Mostly, though, I just want to make sure I’m not hindering her.

My wife Anne (who works for Our Hen House, headed by former Farm Sanctuary National Advocacy Organizer Jasmin Singer) and I both work from home here in Tucson, and we’re very much early birds. A typical day starts around 6 with all the emails that came in overnight. I’ll try to exercise most days (although I’m no Marathon Man like Gene), in part because I can get in some of my best thinking while running. For example, a few weekends ago, I received an email about a Facebook post on welfare reforms. That led to a longer conversation, and then, over my next two runs, the idea for a blog post on the topic took shape.

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4. Describe a day that was less typical and memorable.

I have Farm Sanctuary Media Relations Specialist Meredith Turner-Smith to thank for my most memorable days. She has arranged my various interviews, including a one hour radio interview with a station in rural Alabama. Such a fun time! She also got me all my television appearances last fall – an amazing job. She made sure the stations had all the information (I was promoting a Walk for Farm Animals each appearance) and B-roll (so the audience was able to look at cute animals instead of having to watch me).

The best week was probably last October at the Seattle Walk for Farm Animals. Walk Coordinator Christina Cuenca organized an absolutely incredible event! (And Meredith had, of course, previously had me on the radio to promote the Walk.) People were so fired up – I’ve never been interrupted by cheers and applause so often. Not ever! I was able to spend time with different activists in Seattle, too, separate from the Walk. Then I met with other members in Portland and gave a talk there. Next was up to Vancouver, where I had another hour on the radio (this one was in studio) leading up to the great Walk (which was the only time I saw the sun there!).

Of course, compared to Gene, I’m an absolute amateur when it comes to travelling and speaking. I truly have no idea how he does it. I spent at least 20 hours researching, writing, getting feedback on, and practicing just my “Understanding the Numbers” talk for AR2015. I don’t know how Gene could possibly do it, day in and day out.

But for me, the Seattle / Portland / Vancouver trip was an amazing week.

5. Was there a time when you reached someone whom you never expected to be receptive to your message?

I know I don’t have anywhere near the number of stories Gene has (I love listening to his stories), but I do have loads of experiences like this (including at the national Future Farmers of America conference).

One of my first unexpected encounters like this was speaking at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. A young man in the audience was clearly agitated and just itching to get up and say something. As soon as I opened it up for questions, he jumped up and gave a dissertation on the “values” of hunting.

It was obvious that debating hunting wouldn’t be a winning strategy. More importantly, I knew arguing with him wouldn’t do anything to change anyone else’s mind or choices. I was, of course, tempted to make the full, consistent “animal rights” case, but I decided it was more important to try to get some of the people to actually make constructive change that made a difference for farm animals.

So I said, “Well, I can tell you this: I would rather live my life free and be shot dead as an adult, than be crammed into a bathroom with a bunch of others such that I can hardly move, living in our own waste.” As soon as I said that, the young man visibly calmed, and sat down to listen. I then went on to reiterate how bad farm animals have it on factory farms. At this point, the whole audience was more attentive than they had been during my main talk. I concluded my “answer” to him by repeating that I didn’t think anyone in the room would condone the way these animals are treated, and that each of us can choose compassion every time we eat.

Not only did the rest of the Q & A go great, but after everything was done, the young man thanked me. He said he always thought factory farms were bad, but hadn’t known just how bad. He also hadn’t known how rough it was for chickens (which I had focused on in the main talk), and concluded that not eating meat from factory farms was the right thing to do.

To me, this shows the power of Gene’s idea of meeting people where they are. I have always found it to be much more constructive and impactful to focus on the first step, rather than presenting a fixed dogma.

6. What do you enjoy doing outside of Farm Sanctuary life (hobbies, interests, etc.)?

[Farm Sanctuary CEO ] Hank Lynch made the comment, “Matt, most people don’t have the opportunity we have, to be able to work for animals.” This is really insightful: we are really incredibly fortunate to have this opportunity, and I want to make the most of it. Since we work at home, Anne and I are able to work every day. But we do try to go for a hike together once every week or two (where, of course, we talk more about work). I try to log off of work by 8pm, so I can do a little reading and wind down some.

I try to cook a good dinner 3-4 times per week (making enough for leftovers).

Our (lifelong vegan) daughter is away at college, so I look forward to opportunities to chat with her on Google Hangouts whenever she has a few spare minutes (usually in lab, between experiments). When she’s home, I try to keep up with her on her daily runs!

EllenKGreenPassport7. You’ve raised Ellen vegan; what advice do you have for vegan parents?

Oh, the world is so incredibly different now than it was 22 years ago, especially in this respect!

Reannon Branchesi, who previously organized all our Walk for Farm Animals events, is one of the founders of Generation Veggie – an amazing website and community for anyone who is vegan in a family (raising vegan kids, kids who have chosen to go vegan in a non-veg family, etc.). If you have questions or concerns, GenVeg has an article or someone who can help. It is a great resource!

And chill out if your son or daughter doesn’t like veggies!

8. Gene mentioned mixing soy powder to make soymilk back in the day… how has vegan food changed for you? What can Ellen enjoy that you couldn’t when you were in college?

HA! Comparing my attempts to just eat vegetarian (dairy-a-palooza) to eating vegan today is crazy! When I first stopped eating animals, I lived on cheese sandwiches and Captain Crunch with cow’s milk. Now at college, Ellen has vegan options at every dining hall at every meal (that video’s star doesn’t appear until 51 seconds in). Other colleges (including in Texas!) have entirely vegetarian or even vegan dining halls! Vegan reubens, vegan pizza, vegan Tofurky feasts – not only around Thanksgiving but regularly? (Thanks, Seth!)

Of course, I know that most people think veganism is impossible from where they are now (all the more reason to focus on the first step). But I could literally write a book about how crazy-different it is today than 30 years ago.

9. Why should someone visit Farm Sanctuary?

Of course, you don’t need to visit one of our sanctuaries to make an absolutely huge difference in the world. Every time we choose what to eat, we can make a powerful statement against cruelty and for compassion. Every time someone asks us why we’re vegetarian, we have the chance to provide farm animals a voice.

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But there is something truly wonderful about getting to know individuals like Valentino, Emily, and Lucie. It makes our choices and our opportunity to advocate for these animals less abstract, more concrete. For me, at least, spending time with these individuals leaves me energized and even more motivated to change the world, to build a society where individuals like Frank and Bean are no longer our job, but simply our friends.

 

The 12 Habits of Highly Effective Vegans

Another guest post from our good friend Tobias!

  1. Highly effective vegans can put themselves in the shoes of whomever they are talking to. They know that other people may be significantly different in many ways. They may have different interests and motivations, different ways to deal with changes and challenges. Therefore…
  2. Highly effective vegans are adaptive. They can adapt the way they talk and what they talk about, according to their audience. They are not dogmatic in their approach. They know they are under no moral obligation to present veganism as a moral obligation.
  3. Highly effective vegans encourage every step that people take. They know that change usually happens gradually. Therefore, highly effective vegans focus on the good things that people are already doing, rather than on the things they are not doing yet.
  4. Highly effective vegans don’t care about purity. They know that both regarding themselves and others, focussing on purity is unproductive. They want to make being vegan look as accessible, easy and attractive as possible. They know that eating more compassionately is not an either or, black or white, now or never thing. They want to help people to take the first step rather than the last.
  5. Highly effective vegans don’t need to be “right”. Rather, they focus on what works. That’s why they are rarely debating or arguing things. They know that in addition to providing arguments, they can also provide practical information, recipes, or a taste experience (i.e., they can cook for others).
  6. Highly effective vegans know how to listen. They know that listening is essential to real communication. Highly effective vegans therefore also know to ask questions, and when to be quiet. They are friendly, and have a sense of humor. They know that the process of their conversations is often more important than the content.
  7. Highly effective vegans do remember what it was like to be a non vegan – they don’t suffer from vegan amnesia. They know that at some point they ate animal products and may even have been deaf themselves for the animal rights arguments, even when they were articulated clearly to them. Therefore, they are patient and understanding.
  8. Highly effective vegans know that attitude change can come after behavior change. Therefore, they don’t mind when people start their vegan journey for health or for any reason.
  9. Highly effective vegans are humble. They know they are not perfect. They know other people may do other great things, even if they are not vegan. And they know they don’t have all the answers.
  10. Highly effective vegans have faith in people. They know most people want to do good, and don’t want animals to suffer. Highly effective vegans know that change is a matter of time. They realize that one important thing we have to do is to make it easier for people to act and eat compassionately, by providing more and better vegan options.
  11. Highly effective vegans understand the crucial importance of good food. They applaud the development of new products, they learn how to cook, and they can inspire other people by telling them about how great they can eat as vegans.
  12. Highly effective vegans don’t judge. They see veganism – like getting better at being human – as a journey rather than a destination, something that is never done, and can be started on many different roads.

Direct link.

“The single most important thing…”

1) What challenges does your association face with the food industry?

In our economy, farm animals are inherently viewed as units of production. Given the competition to sell the least expensive product or else go out of business, there is no room for respect or compassion. Animals are ultimately seen as meat, rather than the intelligent, thoughtful, sensitive individuals they are. Cruelty and suffering are built into the meat industry.

2) What steps do you believe are necessary to change the way that animals are treated?
At this time, it is important to outlaw the worst abuses the meat industry uses: battery cages, veal crates, and gestation and farrowing crates.


All talk of welfare and reform aside, as long as farm animals are viewed as meat or producers of products, they will not be treated well. Profiting from the death of an animal obviates truly caring for that individual. Ultimately, each chicken, turkey, pig, and cow needs to be seen as someone, not something.

3) Why do you believe animals are entitled to rights and humane treatment other than laws?

Anyone who can think and has the ability to suffer and feel happiness is an individual, not an object or a tool. They deserve respect for their own individual life. In our society, respect for individuals is codified by “rights.”

4) Why should animal abuse in the food industry be a concern to consumers?

Almost everyone opposes cruelty to animals! Earlier in 2015, Gallup did a poll and found that 96% of Americans actively want animals protected from harm. 96%!

If we are buying meat, eggs, and dairy from factory farms, we are paying for and consuming cruelty. Ultimately, in this capitalist society, we are culpable for the consequences of our choices.

5) How would a change in the industry benefit the economy?

An industry based on cruelty is wrong, regardless of the economic impacts. No one would ask if ending slavery would have benefits to the economy – slavery was wrong, and good people stood on the right side of history and opposed it.

6) What are the most common questions of skepticism that you receive regarding animal rights and how do you justify yourself against these qualms?

It isn’t a question of justifying myself. I understand that it is easy to feel the need to justify yourself when you are different from the majority. But really, none of this is about me or other advocates. Also, it really isn’t about “animal rights,” either. It is about having our actions match our ethics, and being on the right side of history.

7) Was there a specific moment that lead you to advocate for animal rights?

Like many individuals, I changed my views and my habits slowly over time, as I came to learn more and to realize I could act differently. The most important point, however, was the fact that my roommate, first year of college, was a vegetarian. That set everything in motion.

8) For what reasons do you believe that the food industry is able to justify the harsh treatment of animals in their production of “cheap meat”?

I don’t know that anyone justifies anything, really. As long as the public demands cheap meat, there will be supply. The more people who make ethical decisions, the fewer animals will suffer. We’ve already seen this in the veal industry. There is no doubt in my mind that it will eventually happen to the rest of the meat industry – it is just too cruel and immoral to survive.

9) Do you believe that the only certain way to end animal abuse in the food industry is for the entire population to become vegetarian/vegan?

Ultimately, yes. But there are two important additional considerations:

A. Not eating animal flesh doesn’t mean deprivation, a life of boring salads and weird, tasteless foods. There are absolutely amazing options out there that even hard-core carnivores love. See, for instance, http://v-lish.com/new-favorites/

B. Everyone can take steps that will help lessen the number of animals suffering. Every time you choose a cruelty-free option, you are helping change the world.

10) Do you believe that more humane methods of producing animals can ever completely change the food industry?

No. When an individual exists to be sold as meat, they will be treated as meat.

11) Any last thoughts on the way that the public can change the way that animals are treated in the food industry?

By far, the single most important thing everyone can do is stop eating factory-farmed chickens. Veterinarian professor John Webster rightfully noted that industrial chicken production is, “in both magnitude and severity, the single most severe, systematic example of man’s inhumanity to another sentient animal.” No matter what else you do or believe, boycotting factory farmed chicken is the most important, powerful step you can take.

-Matt

You Are Not Your Audience

Tobias Leenaert,  one of the founders of the Belgian organization Ethical Vegetarian Alternative, has a really insightful saying: You Are Not Your Audience (YANYA). This was one of my greatest failings in my early years of advocacy – I chose my message based on what sounded good to me, rather than what would have the biggest impact on non-vegetarians. Nobel laureate Herb Simon makes the important point that took me years to understand: People don’t make optimal choices. Rather, we make choices that are good enough. Consider this chart:
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Where the Y-axis is any negative measure – pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, water usage, saturated fat, etc. If they care at all about the measure, the vast majority of people would look at this chart and say, “I should give up A.” And a few might say, “I should give up A, B, and C.” Basically no one will say, “I should only consume I.” But put labels on the chart:

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And now vegans see something different: a case for veganism. It will, of course, be true – a vegan will generally use less water, or cause less pollution / global warming, or consume less saturated fat. The labels don’t change anything, however – non-vegan people are still going to see beef as bad, or beef, pork, and veal as bad. As you’ve probably noticed in your day-to-day lives, people substitute chicken (and sometimes chicken and fish) for red meat. This is backed up by research: 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 (Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics 26(1), October 18, 2012). Given that it takes over 200 chickens to provide the same number of meals as one steer, this causes a lot more deaths.

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Given that chickens are so intensively raised, anything that encourages a move from red meat to chicken causes more suffering.

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I bring this up because I so often see advocates hop on every story that sounds anti-meat, regardless of how it will actually affect animals in the real world. We can’t just repeat messages that feel like they justify our personal veganism. Rather, we have to advocate such that fewer animals will suffer.

Chanted Morals or Deep-Fried Tofu?

I received this question regarding Paul Shapiro’s Introduction to The Accidental Activist:

I found a particular passage here and would like your thoughts:
“In many ways, it boils down to this question: Do we want a social club, or do we want a social movement? If we want a social movement, we need to open our arms and have a big tent.”
This is interesting. I agree with you on inclusivity, certainly. But I’m not sure why we should be a movement “that welcomes people where they are, applauds them for taking the steps they’ve taken.” While I agree gains come from compromise, I can’t think of a single successful social movement that has taken this incremental, consumer-based approach. Can you? If not, why do you believe its the best way to effect change rather than following the successful movements of the past that focused their efforts on strong messages and systematic, moral change?

There are a number of things we can learn from earlier social justice movements, as discussed in Welfare and Liberation. But it is important to understand the significant differences between our work and previous campaigns.

In the end, we all want a world where animals are not exploited, but rather respected as individuals. Animal liberation, for short. The vast, vast majority of cruelty to animals comes from animal agriculture.

From Animal Charity Evaluators.

To a first approximation, animal liberation would be achieved when everyone stops eating animals. This won’t happen through societal-level changes: no law or amendment will abolish killing animals for food as long as the majority of those in power eat animals. Therefore, animal liberation will necessarily happen individual by individual; laws will follow behavior change, rather than create it.

The question then is: What is the fastest way to get people to stop eating animals?

Lessons from the Relevant Data

Since the determining factor is individuals making different choices, the relevant information comes from psychology, sociology, marketing, and economics, rather than politics or war. Why people do or don’t make cruelty-free choices is the central question, not how slavery was ended or how women won the vote. (And the animals are in deep trouble if it is going to take a civil war for animal liberation to occur.)

If we want to bring about animal liberation, we need to look at how and why people who currently aren’t eating animals got to that place, as well as understanding why other people don’t currently make compassionate choices.

Over the past quarter century, I’ve personally interacted with thousands of vegetarians, and heard from tens of thousands of others. Very, very few went right from a standard American diet to vegan upon being told, “Go vegan!” I know a handful who went vegan overnight and maintained that change. But I know many more who instantly went vegan and are no longer even vegetarian.

This isn’t a negligible problem. Some of the failed vegans I know were close friends. One was a founding Board member of a major vegan group; he now isn’t even close to vegetarian. He was driven away because of the self-righteousness of many vegans: “I grow weary of the term ‘vegan.’ It seems to become just a label for moral superiority.”

(Unfortunately, that is not an uncommon reaction. Obviously not all vegans are self-righteous, but veganism often attracts the self-righteous. And they tend to be loud.)

On the other hand, the people who have made the biggest difference for the animals  with their choices, their example, and their advocacy  are almost all individuals who have evolved incrementally over time. The lesson is clear: instead of insisting on the last step, we should celebrate every step anyone takes that helps animals.

We’re Already on the Same Page

One unique aspect of our work for animal liberation is that we actually don’t need to change people’s ethics, unlike the abolitionist or suffrage movements. The vast majority of people already oppose cruelty to animals. But we know, from everyday experience and through decades of research, that the vast majority of people simply don’t make decisions based on ethics. They make decisions based on habit, convenience, social norms. To quote Cleveland Amory, we have an infinite capacity to rationalize, especially when it comes to something we want to eat.

Luckily, there is a great deal of psychological and sociological research into people’s choices. Specifically: how and why they change habits when they do, as well as why they don’t, even when they say they want to. This research, as it applies to helping animals, is discussed in The Animal Activist’s Handbook, Change of Heart, and in some of the essays in The Accidental Activist. (And new relevant articles are linked to on this blog.)

In short, we have four facts regarding the majority of the population (the people we need to reach):

  1. People already share our moral revulsion at cruelty to animals.
  2. People rarely act based on their ethics if it conflicts with habit and the norms of their friends and family.
  3. People who make real change and maintain that change do so incrementally.
  4. Animal liberation must necessarily be achieved from the ground up, person by person.

Given these facts, the movement for animal liberation is inherently an incremental, consumer-based campaign. And if we truly want to do our best for the animals, we must understand and work with the psychology of consumer choices.

For this reason, everyone is a potential ally. With allies, we work constructively. Together, we will continue to shift the consumer landscape such that it is easy for everyone to act on their ethics.

We know how to do this: through our person-to-person outreach, advocates drive increasing demand for cruelty-free options. This in turn improves the quality and availability of supply, which allows more people to get on board. Thus, we create the virtuous feedback loop that will bring about animal liberation.

As I’ve pointed out before, the vegan future is here, it is just unevenly distributed. Almost every vegan has heard, “If all vegan food was this good, I’d eat vegan all the time!” Or, as “a carnivore all the way” said about a vegan restaurant:

Wish they were in my neighborhood, ‘cause I’d be one happy fat vegan cat eating some deep fried tofu with their crazy good tartar sauce. Not kidding.

We will do this. Not kidding.

See also, One Possible Future