Friday, August 17, 2018

The Greatest Threat to America

I recently listened to Sam Harris' "Ask Me Anything" #13. In it, Sam continues to rant against Ezra Klein, and rave about how "identity politics" is the greatest threat to the country.

My question to Sam is: How many unarmed black people have to be killed, or how many trans people have to be killed for you to care about that?

What would it take for someone's point of view to matter to Sam, other than the point of view of a center-right straight white male?

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Vegans vs. animals: "Me me me me me me me."

The UK animal rights organization Animal Aid has been running a "Mark It Vegan" campaign since 2016. The group recently released a poll showing that some vegans, vegetarians, and self-identified meat-reducers would feel "valued" and "accepted" if grocery stores would mark their products in some specific way to signal those products are vegan.

Because, of course, vegans' feelings are the single most important concern in the world.


I also saw this headline about the poll: "Vegan Labeling May Increase Supermarket Own-Brand Sales." This headline is misleading for several reasons. The first is that the label wouldn't have to say "vegan" to signal to a certain population. It can be a subtle "V" symbol, or just say "100% plant-protein."

Worse, the survey was only of the veg / near-veg population. You can't say how overall sales would be affected without polling all shoppers. We have lots of data showing that labeling a product "vegan" or putting it in a special vegetarian section causes the product's overall sales to drop significantly (more).

So the question is: Do we want more animal-friendly products sold to the wider population, or do we want vegans to feel accepted? Sadly, loads of people fall in the latter category.


Thursday, July 12, 2018

Learning from History to Maximize Our Impact

I've given this talk twice this year. Yesterday, it went very well. The other time – at the Scottsdale VeganFest in March – was the worst reception I’ve ever gotten. Even worse  much worse – than speaking at the Future Farmers of America national convention, when hundreds and hundreds of future farmers chanted “Eat More Meat!”

Dealing with the angry vegan mob; photo by Kari Nienstedt,
who said with much understatement: "It wasn't pretty." 

I’m going to tell you a bit about how I got here, covering some of the lessons I’ve learned along the way.

Note: I did not start out as an animal lover. I grew up in a small town in rural Ohio and went to twelve years of Catholic school. I went fishing every summer and I loved meat. Whenever it was my birthday, I chose Ponderosa Steakhouse. When I started college at the University of Cincinnati in 1986, my family and I made plans to go to the fanciest restaurant in town when I graduated.

It didn’t quite work out that way.

My roommate that year was an older transfer student. For those who don’t know me, I’m 6’ 2”, but Fred was an even bigger guy – 2 or 3 inches taller, probably 70 pounds heavier. Built like a linebacker.

And he was a vegetarian. Fred told me how animals are mistreated on factory farms. Eventually, his appeals to logic and justice convinced me and I stopped eating meat. But I’ll be honest – in a dorm back in 1986, I wasn’t too happy. I was living on Capt’n Crunch and government-cheese sandwiches. I thought I was going to die of malnutrition.

So I went back to eating meat. This leads us to the first important lesson: The vast majority of people who go vegetarian go back to eating meat. Most surveys find that about four out of every five people who go veg eventually quit.

Like a lot of people, I found my fellow mammals more sympathetic than other animals. So instead of going back to eating beef or pork, I ate chickens instead. This is in keeping with a general trend, which is lesson number two: in the United States, consumption of red meat has stayed relatively flat or declined in my lifetime. But consumption of chicken has skyrocketed – increasing 500% in just a few decades.



The next year, I was living on my own. One day, I was staring into the mirror, and a thought just came to me: “How can I consider myself a good person if I continue to pay others to kill animals so I can eat them?” At that very moment – and this is 100% true – the wall started shaking with a loud “BAM BAM BAM!!”

OK, it was someone in the next apartment hammering a nail into our common wall. But it was very shocking. At the time, it felt like a sign. I’ve never eaten meat since. As I learned more, I moved to Amish cheese and free-range eggs, before eventually giving them up as well.

At the time, I was studying to be an aerospace engineer. I had always loved planes and space. I talked about Carl Sagan so much my teachers referred to him as “Uncle Carl.”

But the more I learned about factory farming, the more I realized that I didn’t want to design jet engines or spacecraft. I wanted to do something that would have an impact down here on earth. I won a Global Change Fellowship from the Department of Energy and went to grad school at the University of Illinois with the intention of studying Environmental Engineering.

There I joined Students for Animal Rights. After my first semester, everyone else in the group graduated. I had to decide whether to let the group fold, or take it over and build it up again.

Now I’ll be honest with you – I hated the idea of trying to lead a group. I’m a serious introvert, and the idea of speaking before a crowd literally made me sick to my stomach. But luckily for me, I didn’t give into the fear, because it was through that organization I met and married Anne in 1992.

So lesson number three: if you face your fears, you will meet your soulmate!


Of course, your mileage may vary on that one.

Anne got a job as a professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, PA, and we moved there in 1993. The next July, EK was born. There are currently a lot of websites and resources for an entirely plant-powered pregnancy, but there weren’t so many back then. There were exactly zero. Lesson four: you don’t have to eat meat, eggs, or dairy, even in pregnancy.

And you don’t need them growing up. EK earned four varsity letters in high school track and four in cross country. EK ran in the state championships in everything from the 4x800 and two mile to the 5k finals for cross country. EK was also a state champion in Science Olympiad and a National Merit Scholar. They repeated all this at Pomona College, which at the time Fortune Magazine ranked the #1 school in the country. EK earned academic honors and was only the 14th in Pomona’s history to earn four cross country and four track letters on the women’s teams.

Also known as "Hat" to teammates.

EK has always been entirely plant-powered. So there’s lesson number five.

But I’ve gotten ahead of myself. Back in the 90s, I was working on climate change. Remember, this was before climate change was cool – it was just me and Al Gore. However, more and more I found myself interested in activism, not academics. Anne and I co-founded a nonprofit with the goal of trying to convince people not to eat meat. Since Anne had the job, she underwrote the organization for a number of years.

At the time, I was quite ideological (to put it mildly). I worried about definitions and philosophy and “consistency.” I was hardcore, more interested in the purity of my message than in the real-world consequences of my actions.

But in the mid-1990s, I developed a chronic disease. Lesson number six: Avoid chronic diseases.

This disease fundamentally changed how I looked at the world. Words and definitions and purity no longer seemed important. What matters is suffering, and my goal became reducing suffering as much as possible.

I tried to shift my advocacy to something more rooted in the real world. I no longer wanted to just promote my personal philosophy. I wanted to reduce suffering as much as possible, however I could. So where are we …? Oh yeah: lucky lesson seven: please focus on reducing suffering in the real world.

Even with this insight, I didn’t have much success. Although there was a dip for a few years after the Great Recession, the number of animals killed has generally gone up and up and up. Since about 2014, per-capita consumption of animals in the United States continued to break new records every year. I just want to emphasize that, lesson eight: the number of animals killed per person is at an all-time high.

Let me pause here a second, because I believe it is very important to understand that people are eating more animals than ever before. This can be hard to believe, because it goes against the “we’re winning” narrative many groups promote.

For decades, advocates have trotted out surveys showing that people say that they are going to eat less meat. In 2018, once again, more than half the people in the United States claimed they were going to eat less meat. And yet, in 2018, the per capita consumption of animals will be higher than it has ever been, breaking last year’s record.

Lessons nine and ten: People don’t act the way they say they will. It is a hard lesson to learn. It is easy to get caught up in the “good news” on our social media feeds. But reality is harsh.

So if you want to reduce as much suffering as possible, what do you do?

Let’s go back to the beginning: while red meat consumption is relatively flat, chicken consumption is through the roof. Here are four facts that I understood only relatively recently:

1. It takes over 200 chickens to make the same number of meals as one steer.

2. In many regards, chickens are the most abused animals. The situation is so brutal that animal science professor Dr. John Webster 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.”

3. This year, the average person in the United States will eat about 26 animals from factory farms. About 25 of those are birds.

4. Just about every single argument for vegetarianism – health, environment, animals – is taken by the general public to be an argument against eating cows and pigs and for eating more chickens.

One example (click for larger).

With these facts, Anne, longtime friend and activist Joe Espinosa, and I founded the group One Step for Animals in 2014. Our message is simple: Please don’t eat chickens. You can find out more at OneStepForAnimals.org.

One Step seeks to be rational and adjust to the facts in the real world. Again, those facts aren’t pretty. If you look around the world, meat consumption is soaring almost everywhere. The statistics certainly seem to indicate that the vast majority of people will buy as much meat as they can afford, regardless of any argument otherwise.

This is depressing, I’ll grant you that. But again, I believe that we should face harsh facts. We don’t help animals by living in a fantasy world.

In addition to adjusting our advocacy message on the demand side, another possible reaction is: If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. Give people what they want, but in a way that doesn’t cause animals to suffer. If people are going to eat meat, let’s change the supply.

Let’s give people plant-based meat that has the same flavor, smell, and mouthfeel. Let’s grow animal cells in a clean cultivator rather than in an actual animal: let’s give people clean meat.

This is why Ethan Brown founded Beyond Meat. It is why Pat Brown founded Impossible Foods. It is why Dr. Uma Valeti founded Memphis Meats.

This is also the reason The Good Food Institute was founded. That’s my day job now. I’m part of the team pushing to advance plant-based and clean meat. We exist to inspire scientists, entrepreneurs, and others to work in the plant-based and clean meat fields. We help them build companies, and we work to create markets so that the meat people eat will no longer cause animals to suffer. You can check out our site at GFI.org.

This is a trillion-dollar industry, and we will be transforming it from inefficient filthy factory farms to plant-based and clean meat.

This isn’t just an old activist’s wishful thinking. Visionaries like Bill Gates, Richard Branson, guys from Google, and the richest man in Asia are all investing in these companies.

But get this: it isn’t just activists and visionaries, either. Tyson Foods, the largest meat producer in the country has invested in plant-based innovator Beyond Meat. Tyson has also invested in clean-meat pioneer Memphis Meats and Israeli clean meat startup Future Meat Technologies. Cargill, the third largest meat company in the U.S., has also invested in Memphis Meats. Maple Leaf Foods, Canada’s largest meat company, has bought plant-based meat companies Lightlife and Field Roast. PHW Group, the largest producer of chicken in Germany, has invested in Israeli clean meat startup SuperMeat.

If the meat industry is buying in, you know this isn’t just a pipedream. It is the future. And by facing facts and working in the real world, we can actually change the world. For real.


Saturday, June 30, 2018

Why Liberals Lose

This deserves more coverage. Of course, it won't get any.

By the way, Kevin Drum is my #1 go-to blog. I've read him for probably 13 years or more.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

The End of America

I've read loads of hyperbolic headlines over the years, from both the left and right. But I honestly don't know what this country is anymore.


That picture and this headline say it all:

US Withdraws from Human Rights Council

And what would Republicans choose to talk about instead? How imperative it is to screw over the worst off.

More: Philip Alston, the UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty: Trump Administration’s Policies Designed to Worsen Poverty & Inequality.


Kevin Drum asks the right question: Whose Side Are You On?

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Avoiding GMOs? You'll be dead soon.

If you follow me on Facebook, you'll have seen a number of posts about genetically modified organisms (here's a good one). Or, as they are known in the modern world: basically everything.

What people don't realize is that just about all food produced by modern agriculture has had its genes modified. What would it look like if that wasn't the case?



What people don't seem to realize is that back in the 1950s and 60s, food scientists bombarded our crops with high doses of radiation to create mutations. They then grew the mutated crops to see if any of the expressed mutations were beneficial. Obviously, though, there was no way to know what all the mutations were doing. It was just taking a shotgun to the genome and hoping something good happened.

Now with techniques like CRISPR, we can intentionally turn on or off genes or insert a sequence of base pairs to provide exactly the change we would like (e.g., producing Vitamin A, which would help many millions avoid death and blindness, an outcome some oppose).

Which do you think has a greater impact on the genome: using a shotgun or a scalpel?

And for those who haven't seen this, we've manipulated the genomes of chickens, too.



Monday, June 18, 2018

The Self as Illusion

I was listening to an older Sam Harris podcast while cooking this weekend, and he revisited his contention that "the self is an illusion." One of the others on stage pushed back, and Sam countered by stating he had experienced the dissolution of the self. The counter to that was that many people had "experienced god," which I thought was a pretty solid takedown.

But in other contexts, Sam has done what I consider to be a good job of explaining what he means. As I interpret it, there are two parts.

First, there is no free will (which is discussed in his book of the same name). This fact is logically obvious when I think about it - everything is just physical reactions, so where could "free will" actually enter the picture?

Although I understand and accept this fact at a rational level, I haven't fully embraced it. While I think I am relatively Zen about many things in life ("It is what it is"), my default reaction to events is not always, "They could not have done otherwise." For example, I still loathe Paul Ryan. Also, I still wish for vengeance against a certain person who harmed me and my family.

Yes, I know that this is neither rational nor helpful. But I could not feel otherwise!   😉

Following from that is the logical conclusion that there is no thinker of thoughts. Even though we are conscious and self-aware, there is no "self" in control of our mind.

One doesn't have to be a materialist to recognize that this is true. It is possible to observe this fact through meditation. If we can pay close enough attention, we see that thoughts just arise. To slightly modify an exchange between Dan Harris and Sam Harris:

Dan: "But can't I choose to say, 'Now I'm going to think about a Tofurky sandwich'?"

Sam: "Where did 'Tofurky sandwich' come from?"

Dan: "Um, my hunger after two hours talking with you?"

There are obviously some difficult implications that flow from these insights. For example: If we have no free will, how can we change anything about ourselves? But that's like asking how a computer could change, given that it has no free will. Computers just need a new program (or, in a bad case, a virus) to be different. We, too, can also get new programs. We can read new books, listen to thoughtful podcasts, subscribe to a rarely-published but interesting blog. Each of those inputs can change the way our brains function.

Click for larger.
And if we could really, really internalize that everyone around us is just a relatively broken computer, we would have a lot less frustration and upset. We can still want to reduce suffering in the world, but we would reduce our own suffering first. Good luck to each of us!

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Saturday, May 26, 2018

Our Capacity for Self-Delusion

Anne and I listened to part of Sam Harris' latest "Ask Me Anything." In it, Sam claims that he isn't tribal because he disagrees with left-of-center white guys ("like Robert Wright and Ezra Klein") who would be his "tribe." This claim would be incredible to me, but as Sam would be the first to point out, he has no free will to allow him to get beyond his delusions.

As Ezra Klein mentioned  early in their podcast together, Sam's tribe is actually made up of people Sam thinks have been unfairly attacked by "the Left." This is why Sam will promote a misogynistic demagogue who builds his fame on hatred of transgender people and says things like feminists have “an unconscious wish for brutal male domination.” It is why Sam will say that the KKK's favorite "scientist" is "the most unfairly maligned person in my lifetime."

Another bizarre twist: In their podcast, Sam continually tried to interrupt Ezra, but Ezra wouldn't let him ("Just let me finish this."). In the Ask Me Anything, Sam said this proved that Ezra wasn't open minded!

But I've said all the above before. For something new, please check out Robert Wright's great take.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Regarding Jordan Peterson

"Arguably the most manipulative feature of 12 Rules for Life is the author’s repeated reference to procreation as the driving force of human behavior: time and again this or that proposition is supported by reference to the mating patterns of humans or animals. Given that so many of his readers appear to be young men struggling with masculinity issues, this is fiendishly clever in its appeal to their deepest insecurities: reinvent yourself as a brutal Nietzschean strongman and you’ll get some. (The patriarchal loathing for women implicit in this formulation — which presents them as markers of success or failure, rather than people to be connected with on a human level — hardly needs spelling out.)

"The world is full of snake oil salesmen; why should this one concern us particularly? Because male self-pity is a killer. There’s a white supremacist in the White House, and far-rightist violence — both Islamic and Anglo-Saxon — is a clear and present threat. In the wake of yet another mass shooting in the United States — the high school massacre in Parkland, Florida, where a teenage gunman has taken 17 innocent lives — it’s high time we gave up the complacent pretense that toxic machismo is merely an adolescent affectation or a symptom of some nebulous thing called “mental illness.” Yes, it’s a pathology; but it’s also an ideology, a system of thought in its own right, with its own intellectuals and proselytizers. In the current climate it behooves us to be extra vigilant about the creeping normalization of reactionary chauvinism, and call it out when we see it. What happens in the realm of discourse has consequences in the real world.

"Admittedly it’s not always easy to distinguish between a harmless retro eccentric and a peddler of poisonous and potentially murderous ideas. So let’s take stock: Masculinist persecution myth? Check. Repeated appeals to Darwinism to justify social hierarchies? Check. A left-wing conspiracy to take over the culture? Check. Romanticization of suffering? Check. Neurotic angst about “chaos”? Check. Like many of his sort, Peterson sees himself as a defender of the best traditions of Western civilization and the Enlightenment. But there is an old adage: if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, chances are it’s a duck."

See also: Jordan Peterson or Islamist Cleric?

Friday, May 4, 2018

Not all bad...

When you're concerned with non-human animals, it is easy to feel like everything is terrible and getting worse. But Stephen Pinker looks at the numbers in this video (if you don't want to read his last two books).


Saturday, April 28, 2018

Sorry Ethan

Anne and I regularly have burritos made with Lightlife's Gimme Lean (red cabbage, onion, peppers, V8, and seasonings). We also know people who use this with their non-vegetarian families in place of ground cattle, and the family has never known the difference.

It cooks like ground beef, in that you have to actually cook it for a while to brown it, etc.

Last night, though, we tried Beyond Meat's Crumbles in the same recipe.

They are basically ready to eat very quickly, with just a few minutes of heating. However, both Anne and I agree that they would not fool anyone. They're fine, but just not like ground cattle.

Note: we both find Tofurky's Slow Roasted Chick'n to be noticeably better -- more savory -- than Beyond Meat's Chicken.