Wednesday, August 26, 2015


Recently received; answered with Anger, Humor, and Advocacy and Letter to a Young Matt; passed along in case others share this frustration. 

I get the impression that you feel pretty much the way I do about the "angry vegan" situation, where they lash out, and are derogatory and very negative to non-vegans, vegetarians...basically anybody who isn't just like them.

A perfect is example of this is the recent Cecil the lion issue, where people were showing compassion for Cecil, but they were bombarded by vegans saying that they had no right to upset or angry about Cecil if they weren't vegan.

The problem with this is that these negative encounters turn people away from anything to do with being a vegan. They make vegans appear like a bunch of loony nut jobs, and people don't want anything to do with them or what they're about.

Maybe if they weren't met with this negativity, but instead were shown respect and encouragement, these are people whose compassion could have gone from a lion to cows to pigs to chickens. Maybe they would try Meatless Monday and things would snowball from there. But this doesn't happen because they are met by what appears to them to be a bunch of screaming nut jobs.

It's so frustrating, because all that opportunity is lost due to the very people who should be helping animals.

Do you have any advice on how to view this group of vegans so that it doesn't drive me crazy? I mean, the fight for factory farmed animals is such a long, long, long and hard, hard, hard struggle. I know it will go on after I'm dead. That's very hard to accept, but I can deal with that, because I know I'm helping to build the foundation for changes that will eventually come.

The problem for me is that we already dealing with such an enormous task, people like you and me and Tobias, we all are. It's more than enough to handle on its own. But throw in the angry vegans tearing down the foundation before it can even be built?! The problem for me is that it really just makes me feel like throwing in the towel. It's like the straw that broke the camel's back and I feel like, What's the use?

Anyway, I was writing to you for any ideas or thoughts on how you deal with this? Is there any way to look at it so it doesn't make me feel like it's a losing battle? How do you deal with it? I mean, it feels like a long and hard, but winnable battle. But add to that the screaming, angry vegans, and that makes it feel like an unwinnable battle. Like digging a hole in the sand, where the more you dig, the more the actions of angry vegans make the sand fall back into the hole.

Please also see Roadmap to Animal Liberation.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Anger, Humor, and Advocacy (from 2000)

Click for larger

Some people have asked how I can make jokes when the animals are suffering so terribly, when I’m supposed to be entirely focused on animal liberation. I believe that having a sense of humor is in the animals’ best interest, because not only does it make our example more appealing, it also aids in avoiding burnout. In the cumulative 40+ years we’ve been active, Anne and I have known hundreds of activists who have given up working for the animals – some of whom have even gone back to eating meat! On the other hand, almost all of the successful long-time activists we’ve known – those who have made a real difference in the world – have a sustaining sense of humor.

As a reaction to what goes on in factory farms and slaughterhouses, very strong feelings are understandable and entirely justified. But I believe that our inability – individually and as a movement – to deal with our anger in a constructive manner is one of the greatest hindrances to the advancement of animal liberation.

Over time, people tend to deal with their anger in different ways. Some take to protesting, some to screaming, hatred, and sarcasm. Others disconnect from society and surround themselves with only like-minded people, seeing society as a large conspiracy against veganism.

I do not believe either of these reactions help to move society toward being more compassionate.

A different approach is to try to maintain a positive outlook and a sense of humor. This makes it easier to continue in activism, as well as avoid self-righteous fundamentalism. In turn, this makes it possible to interact positively and constructively with others, thus making it more likely they will take steps to help animals.

Unfortunately, there is no easy way to gain and maintain a sense of humor. One suggestion is to always remember your ultimate goal. In my case, it is the alleviation of suffering. If I allow myself to be miserable because of the cruelty in the world, I am adding to the suffering in the world. More importantly, I am saying that unless utopia is instantaneously established, it is not even possible to be happy. Thus, my goal is inherently unachievable.

To help build any real and lasting change in the world, we need to convince others to think beyond themselves. We must be willing to do the same. Just as we want others to look beyond the short-term satisfaction of following habits and traditions, we need to move past our anger to effective advocacy – i.e., moving from yelling and chanting and arguing to positive, constructive outreach.

If I believe I can’t be happy – that I am a slave to my situation – how can I expect others to act differently?

It also helps to maintain a historical perspective. I realize I am not the first person to be upset by the state of affairs in the world. I can learn from the mistakes and successes of those who came before me.

Few people come to an enlightened view of the world overnight by themselves. It took me over a year after my first exposure to the issues to go vegetarian, and even longer after that to go vegan. If I had been treated with disgust and anger because of my close-mindedness and (in retrospect) pathetic rationalizations, I would certainly never have gone veg.

My story is not unique. Not only does my journey show the downsides of anger and the benefits of kindness and patience, it also indicates that you shouldn’t give up on friends if they don’t react to information as you would like. Shunning friends because they don’t immediately adopt your vegan views not only cuts you off from the very people we need to reach, it also perpetuates the stereotype of the joyless fanatic with no life other than complaining.

“Fighting” suffering is not the only way to make a better world; creating happiness and joy as part of a thoughtful, compassionate life filled with constructive advocacy can be a far more powerful tool for creating change.

As long as there is conscious life on Earth, there will be suffering. The question we face is what to do with the existence each of us is given. We can choose to add our own fury and misery to the rest, or we can set an example by simultaneously working constructively to alleviate suffering while leading joyous, meaningful, fulfilled lives.

In the end, being an activist doesn’t need to be about deprivation, sobriety, and misery. It’s about being fully aware so as to be fully alive.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Understanding the Numbers for Better Advocacy

Presented at the National Animal Rights Conference, AR2015
Matt Ball, Farm Sanctuary

Welcome and thanks for coming.

If I say anything that seems like a criticism or judgment, it isn’t meant that way. I’ve made many mistakes in my life – mistakes that have actively hurt our efforts on behalf of animals. We are all fortunate there has been so much research of late that can guide our efforts to help animals as much as possible.

I want to share this research and the relevant numbers with you today. These facts totally changed my approach to advocacy, although they didn’t do so right away. It took me a long time to get over my personal biases and accept and act on reality.

To set the stage, I was not raised a vegetarian, or even a liberal. I didn’t have any clue what went on in the world. I just knew I loved groovy pants!

Admit it: Adorbs!

When I went vegetarian and became an activist in 1980s, I adopted the “Do Something, Do Anything” mode of activism.

This basically defaulted to focusing on whatever was high profile, whatever was in the news, whatever pissed me off the most.

I did march with the anarchists in DC against the first Gulf war. That made a difference! 

And I did whatever felt best – and this was generally something angry and in-your-face. I wasn’t trying to figure out what would make the biggest difference.

It took me years to come to the most important insight:

I know it goes without saying, but there is an unfathomable amount of cruelty in the world. We simply don’t have the ability to address it all. When we choose what to focus on, we are saying we’re not going to be working on behalf of anything else.

I know this is harsh. But it is a simple logistical truth.

This matters because over the past 40 years, we’ve not done the best job.

For example, this graph shows per capita meat consumption in the U.S. 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.

I know we all have a much greater affinity for mammals than for birds.

But not only are chickens being killed in vastly greater numbers than cattle or pigs, they are suffering absolute horrific and unfathomable cruelty.

We need to do better.

So what do we know that can help us improve as activists, that can help us actually make real progress toward a better world for animals?

You’ve probably all seen this slide from Animal Charity Evaluators:

It is the most important graph in my entire presentation. The bottom line is that to a first approximation, every animal killed in the United States is a farm animal.

Compare that to this graph, showing 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.

Unfortunately, it is even worse than that.

This graph, from Harish Sethu’s “Counting Animals” blog, shows the advertising budgets of companies that exploit animals, compared to the full operating budgets of animal advocacy organizations. Just to be clear, the big circles are simply the advertising budgets for Cargill, McDonald’s, etc. The advertising budget of just one of these companies dwarfs the combined operating budgets of PETA, HSUS, MFA, etc.

Now I know this isn’t happy news. I realize this can all seem overwhelming, even hopeless. It is not entirely unreasonable to look at these numbers and just want to work on whatever project is right in front of us, whatever pisses us off.

And yet, before we move on, I want to hit you with one more piece of bad news. According to a number of surveys, including the most recent one by the Faunalytics (Humane Research Council), the vast majority of people who go vegetarian or vegan eventually go back to eating animals. Specifically, 4 out of 5 people who go veg then quit!

It would be bad enough to realize that we’re throwing away 80% of advocacy efforts. But it is actually worse than that. Everyone who quits being veg becomes an anti-spokesperson for compassionate eating – a public (and often loud) example against taking any steps to help animals. Ginny Messina has written more about this (1, 2, 3).

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

First, let’s consider this graph from Ben Davidow, which shows the relative number of animals harmed by the standard American diet. 

And you can see that the vast, vast majority of animals harmed are birds.

To look at it a different way, we have this graph from Mark Middleton at AnimalVisuals, showing the number of deaths to produce a million calories of different foods, including grains, vegetables, and fruits:

He 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.”

Again though, I don’t want to just focus on death.

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 this as hyperbole. Harish 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 their legs break leaving them unable to make it to water, or have their hearts just give out. Harish’s calculations show that so many chickens suffer to death that their number dwarfs all those killed for fur, in shelters, and in labs. 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 incredible. Again, based on research by Harish, Joe Espinosa notes that the average American consumes about two dozen land animals a year.

If one person decides 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!
The converse is also true: 

Anything that might possibly lead someone to replace red meat with chickens will lead to a lot more suffering and killing, as noted by Ginny Messina.

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

Previously, we saw a graph that showed the number of chickens being slaughtered going way up. But in recent years, this trend has actually reversed, even as the human population of the US continues to grow.

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.

I would love to say that this decline in killing has been driven by a rise of vegetarians and vegans. However, as Nick Cooney notes in Veganomics, the change has actually been driven by meat reducers – people who are eating more meat-free meals, but aren’t vegetarian.

Also from Veganomics, Nick notes that people who buy “humane” animal products eat less meat than the average American. They are also more likely to go vegetarian.

This is a hard bit to swallow. My reaction is to want to attack people who specifically rationalize eating animals. But the data show these people are actually our allies – people we should embrace and encourage.

Turning to recidivism, the data show that people who go veg for health reasons are the ones who go back to eating meat.

The single biggest difference in motivation between those who are currently vegetarian and those who used to be vegetarian is concern for animals.

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

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

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

The Humane League Labs specifically pointed out that we should not focus on dairy.

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 the biggest difference in the numbers.

This relates to research I was a part of this past spring at the University of Arizona. One of the many interesting take-aways from those studies was 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 cruelty in the world, we should take note of this.

Similarly, many people go back to eating animals because they find it too hard to live up to the demand for purity.

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

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

For all the bad news leading off this presentation, there is a great deal of hope and opportunity out there.

A number of surveys have discovered a shocking willingness among the general population to reduce meat consumption.

And if we are going to really help animals, rather than police our club, we can reach these people with an honest, realistic message that actually has a profound impact for animals...

... reducing and eliminating consumption of chickens.

How can we best do this?

These graphs from the Humane League Labs shows that of the advocacy tools available to us, movies, conversations, websites, and online video have proven to be the most impactful.

That conversation is so powerful shows just how important it is that we be positive, effective spokespeople in our daily lives.

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

But it is truly wonderful that 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 favorite quote from Gene Baur.

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

And finally a quick note as to why this work matters. For us here, we can debate and argue, philosophize and condemn. We’re all relatively safe and well off, enjoying our sparring and our quibbles.

But we need to realize that our work is a matter of gravest consequences for animals. Recognizing this actually changed my worldview, away from being right to being maximally effective.

We cannot do everything. This is why I strive to know all the facts and make sure my efforts to have the greatest possible impact. Of everything I could be doing, I want to choose the option that reduces the most suffering. I hope you agree, and that this information is useful. Thank you.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Ellen on Being a Vegan Kid (from 2012)

Being a Vegan Kid
–Ellen Green, 2012

Hallo! I’m Ellen of Arizona. I graduated high school this year as the captain and resident geek of my cross country team, and I’m heading off to California to attend Pomona College. Before I go, I thought I would give my parting advice for vegetarian and vegan kids after the experience of high school, mainly by addressing the most common questions and responses I’ve found to peers finding out that you are veg*n.

First off is the obvious one, “Why are you veg*n?” Of course, this is going to vary from person to person, but my main advice is be brief, be polite, and be enthusiastic as possible. Something simple such as “Well, I know I don’t want to suffer, so I don’t want to make animals suffer” is sensible – you don’t need to go into a whole spiel about the practices on factory farms, although having some details in mind if you’re asked isn’t a bad idea. Be polite, as well – the last thing you want to do is come across as accusatory. Again, show enthusiasm – to do your best for the animals, you want to present as positive a picture of veg*nism as possible. This can occasionally be frustrating when you get the question every time you sit down to eat with a new group of people, but just try to be prepared, and realize it’s a great opportunity to be a representative for the animals.

The next one is the usual follow up, “What do you eat?” Again, this is going to vary from person to person, but you want to emphasize variety and desirability – I don’t think any of us are actually living on kale and raw soybeans, but people seem to think that’s the case on occasion. If you’re a big faux carnivore like me, you might want to point out the variety of fake meats that have been developed in recent years, and are now widely available. If you have the opportunity to go to banquets or bring in food in other situations, I highly advise doing so – people are always surprised at the quality of veg meats and baked goods. You don’t even have to be an expert – Boca chik’n nuggets have been huge hits at Science Olympiad banquets for me.

The third response, and the one that has become more common recently, is “Oh, I could never be veg*n.” This is the one I, personally, have the most trouble answering, but I think one way to approach it is to say, “It might not be as hard as you think,” and elaborate a little on how veg foods have become more available (and tasty!). One point that it’s important to emphasize, though, is that it’s never an “all or nothing” proposition. Maybe mention things like Meatless Mondays, or cutting back on chicken – options that people tend to find more approachable.

Lastly are the aggressive responses that you may get – although, of course, the more veg*nism becomes mainstream, the less this happens, so with luck, you might be able to skip this paragraph! In any case, aggressive responses can vary from the weird thought experiments such as, “What if you were stranded on a desert island with a cow?” to “I just ate a hamburger, nyeh nyeh nyeh nyeh.” There’s no catch-all response for these, but my main advice is don’t get angry. I’m going to say that again, because it bears repeating: don’t get angry. Be polite, be rational, be focused. The issue is the animals, not personal purity, not moral superiority. It always, always, always has to come back to the animals’ suffering. There are some arguments you can’t win and some jibes that will make you furious, but you want to do your best to be a polite and reasonable representative for the animals. It’s not a question of persuading the person you’re arguing with, necessarily, but a question of whether the people around you will see you as that angry, uptight vegan who yells all the time, or a polite, fairly normal kid. None of these people are your enemies – they are the ones who have the potential to make the change for the animals, and the impression you make can have a big influence on that. It’s a hard thing to do, and you will make mistakes – I spent a lot of elementary / middle school in “angry vegan” mode – and it’s not the end of the world. It will get better, both as you move into high school and people are often more open-minded and aware, and as veg*anism becomes more and more mainstream. Enjoy the ride!

Monday, August 3, 2015

Kenny Torrella on Messaging for Maximum Change

Animal advocate extraordinaire, Kenny Torrella, read a commentary by Bruce Friedrich about the importance of using the word "vegetarian" instead of "vegan." On another blog, he quoted it and added this comment:
I read [Bruce's quote] a few weeks ago and have been experimenting with it lately, and 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 Friedrich's tip, 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!

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Animals as the Bottom Line

Global Warming, Human Psychology, and Net Impact for Animals
First written in 2007

At first blush, global warming seems to be a great hook for those of us promoting animal-friendly eating, but there are two problems we should keep in mind:

1. Offering accurate information. Many people say that meat is the leading cause of global warming. But this is not true; the production of meat is not the leading cause of greenhouse gases – only more than transportation. From “Food, livestock production, energy, climate change, and health”:
Although the main human source of greenhouse-gas emissions is combustion of fossil fuels for energy generation, non-energy emissions (including from agriculture and land-use changes) contribute more than a third of the total greenhouse-gas emissions worldwide.

And elsewhere:
Greenhouse-gas emissions from the agriculture sector account for about 22% of global total emissions; this contribution is similar to that of industry and greater than that of transport. Livestock production (including transport of livestock and feed) accounts for nearly 80% of the sector’s emissions.

So livestock comes after energy generation and industry. And that is only globally – in the US, livestock is less than transportation; from the Salon article referenced below:
Here in the U.S., livestock’s impact is not quite so extreme: Six percent of our greenhouse gases come from livestock production, compared with 19 percent from cars, light trucks and airplanes.

See more here (and please scroll down to the update).

[March 2010 update: report author admits even the claim re: transportation isn’t correct.]

Very few meat eaters are actively seeking to be a vegetarian; rather, most people are looking for a reason to dismiss the idea of making a change. When we exaggerate or lie, that is all that is remembered – not our other points or even the underlying reality. That worldwide meat production contributes more to global warming than all of transportation is accurate and striking; there is no reason to exaggerate and claim it is the leading cause.

2. Much more important is the expected actual impact and argument has in the public mind, and how it thus affects animals. When the public hears "livestock" (as in "livestock causes more global warming than transportation"), they think cattle, and the conclusion is that they should eat less beef. Even when people hear "meat ... global warming," they think burping (or flatulent) cows. (Of course, the news is written by, and the media run by, meat eaters. So they will always choose the side that is least challenging to their habits / the status quo.)

For those that look into the science and aren't already vegan, concern for global warming leads almost inevitably to more chickens being eaten (it takes somewhere around 200 chickens to provide the same number of meals as one steer; see "Suffering per Kilogram").

For example, from Salon's “Earth to PETA”:
"Astonishingly enough," says study coauthor Gidon Eshel, a Bard College geophysicist, "the poultry diet is actually better than lacto-ovo vegetarian." In other words, a roast chicken dinner is better for the planet than a cheese pizza.

How about going vegan?
The average American is responsible for about 26 tons annually, so if the entire U.S. population went vegan, we'd reduce our greenhouse gas emissions by only 6 percent.

The vast majority of that 6 percent is from cutting out beef and dairy. (The entire article is worth reading for how "informed" opinion plays out this argument.)

Similarly: from “Food-Miles and the Relative Climate Impacts of Food Choices in the United States,” Environ. Sci. Technol. (pdf):
Different food groups exhibit a large range in GHG-intensity; on average, red meat is around 150% more GHG-intensive than chicken or fish. Thus, we suggest that dietary shift can be a more effective means of lowering an average household's food-related climate footprint than "buying local." Shifting less than one day per week's worth of calories from red meat and dairy products to chicken, fish, eggs, or a vegetable-based diet achieves more GHG reduction than buying all locally sourced food.

The LA Times shows "replace beef with chicken" in action:
"No hamburger patties?" asked an incredulous football player, repeating the words of the grill cook. He glowered at the posted sign: 'Cows or cars? Worldwide, livestock emits 18% of greenhouse gases, more than the transportation sector! Today we're offering great-tasting vegetarian choices.' "Just give me three chicken breasts, please," he said.…

[October 2009: The government of Sweden tells people to eat more chickens to combat global warming.]

My general impression (and I know there are exceptions to this and all arguments) is that global warming is another argument that makes sense to us, and makes us think, “Here is a great, self-interested hook I can use to convince others of veganism's superiority!” But it isn’t a question of whether veganism is the best diet for addressing global warming (as far as I can tell, it is). The bottom line has to be the actual impact of the message we choose to present. In other words: we shouldn’t seek out and use arguments that seem to support veganism. Veganism isn't the point. If we take suffering seriously, we must seek to present a message that actually reduces the most suffering.

As Nobel laureate Herb Simon discovered, human psychology / decision making is often determined by ‘good enough.’ People don’t hear about a concern (especially a relatively abstract issue like global warming) and take it to the fullest extent – e.g., stop driving entirely. Rather, those motivated enough will do something (drive a bit less, drive a more fuel-efficient car) and feel good that they are doing something. (The same has held true for “the health argument.”)

In this case, though, doing “something” means eating a lot more chickens. We can say, “But being vegan is even better!” till we’re blue in the face, but experience shows that this is effective only in the rarest of cases; the vast majority of people who will be moved at all about global warming are happy to be “taking action” by eating a lot more chickens. (And it is the cattle industry that is worried about the global warming / diet argument, not the poultry industry – the latter loves anything that badmouths beef.)

Although the global warming / food connection seems clear to us, the bottom line is how it actually plays out in people’s minds. When used on its own, the diet / global warming angle can easily do more harm (increase in chickens eaten) than good (people going veg). Instead of an oblique anti-beef message, we can present a direct anti-cruelty / pro-animal message, and convince more people to eat fewer or no animals.

For this reason, I think that we should be very careful how we use global warming. It is a hot topic, so it gives us an “in” with the media and environmental groups. But if we present it on its own, given human psychology, the case is very often going to have the bottom line of more chickens dying. In my opinion, the global warming / diet connection does more harm than good when presented on its own, but can work as a hook to capture attention and allow us to draw attention to the horrors of modern agribusiness, with a special focus on cruelty to chickens.


On a related topic, there is growing recognition that increased usage of certain biofuels will exacerbate global hunger. Of course, the same argument of resource usage can be made regarding using crops as animals feed – according to the FAO, only 100m tonnes of cereal crops go to biofuel, while 760m tonnes go to animal feed – and the latter figure isn't even counting soy. As pointed out here:
There is plenty of food. It is just not reaching human stomachs. Of the 2.13bn tonnes likely to be consumed this year, only 1.01bn, according to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, will feed people.… But there is a bigger reason for global hunger, which is attracting less attention only because it has been there for longer. While 100m tonnes of food will be diverted this year to feed cars, 760m tonnes will be snatched from the mouths of humans to feed animals – which could cover the global food deficit 14 times. If you care about hunger, eat less meat.

Keep in mind, however, that beef is much, much less efficient than chicken (and eggs) – see, again, the Salon article:
Welcome, then, the savior of environmentally concerned carnivores everywhere: the chicken. Unlike cattle, chickens don't burp methane. They also have an amazing ability to turn a relatively small amount of grain into a large amount of protein. A chicken requires 2 pounds of grain to produce a pound of meat, compared with about 6 pounds of grain for a feedlot cow and 3 pounds for a pig. Poultry waste produces only about one-tenth of the methane of hog and cattle manure.

Like thousands of activists over the past decades, I’d love to think there is some perfect, logical, self-interested argument that won’t just vindicate my veganism, but will actually convince large numbers of people to go vegan, while not leading others to eat more chickens. But this is not the case – there just aren't lots of people out there who secretly want to be vegan but just need that one statistic. For nearly everyone, any change away from the status quo is difficult and resisted. As much as we’d love to argue otherwise, in response to health or environmental arguments, the first, easiest, most convenient, and socially acceptable step is to eat more chickens.

It is worth briefly considering exactly why health and environmental arguments seem to be more easily “accepted” by people, and why most individuals are resistant and defensive when faced with the cruelty argument. Much of this could well be that health choices are personal (and easily overridden by habit, convenience, etc, even in the face of severe health issues), while environmental concerns are abstract and easily assuaged by taking some action (new lightbulbs, recycling) from the laundry list of suggested actions (“No one’s perfect!”).

The obvious cruelty and vicious brutality of factory farms, however, is both real, immediate, undeniable, and clearly an ethical challenge to our view of ourselves. For these reasons, the animals’ suffering can’t be easily dismissed and forgotten. Thus it is important for meat eaters to avoid the issue as much as possible (and to make the messenger the issue, whenever possible). For the same reason, it is incumbent on us, as animal advocates, to actually and effectively advocate the animals’ case, so that no one can avoid facing the hidden reality.

As I’ve written elsewhere:
I’m not fooling myself – I know that exposing what goes on in factory farms and slaughterhouses isn’t going to reach everyone. But feel-good arguments that avoid the horrors of meat production are easily dismissed, and thus simply not compelling enough. We don’t want people to nod in agreement and continue on as before. It is far better if 95% of people turn away revolted and 5% open their minds to change, than if everyone smiles politely and continues on to McDonald’s for a chicken sandwich.
Let me repeat: Trying to appeal to everyone hasn’t worked, and it won’t work. It is wellpast time to give up the fantasy that there is some perfect self-centered argument that will magically compel everyone to change.

In deciding what to present to the public, our criteria shouldn’t be, “Does this seem [to me] to denigrate (some) meat and/or support veganism?” We shouldn't be trying to justify our diet – we need to make a case that actually helps animals. Unfortunately, we don't get to determine how people should react. Therefore, we must consider how our chosen argument will actually play out to the general public and through the media. We must set aside our personal biases and needs, and honestly ask,“Is this the argument that will alleviate as much suffering as possible?”

Monday, June 22, 2015

Our Hen House Interview, Anniversary Edition

Interview with Matt Ball
Published June 21, 2014

Following is a transcript of an interview with MATT BALL conducted by JASMIN SINGER and MARIANN SULLIVAN of Our Hen House, for the Our Hen House podcast. The interview aired on Episode 232.

JASMIN: Matt Ball cofounded Vegan Outreach and served as the group’s executive director for more than 20 years, building the organization into a leading animal advocacy charity with many thousands of active members around the world. Under his leadership, activists distributed more than 22 million booklets exposing the treatment of farmed animals and promoting compassionate, thoughtful living. A globally recognized authority on animal advocacy, factory farming, vegetarian diets, and applied ethics, Matt is also the author of many essays and several books, including The Animal Activist’s Handbook and most recently The Accidental Activist.

Welcome to Our Hen House, Matt.

MATT: It’s an honor to be back with you.

JASMIN: It’s so exciting to talk to you. We are such big fans of all that you do, as you know, and I’m thrilled about your book, The Accidental Activist. First of all, what does that mean? It’s such a compelling title. What do you mean by The Accidental Activist?

MATT: Well, I never meant to be an activist. People often have kind of a stereotypical view of the personality of an activist, and that’s not me. By nature – not politically but by nature – I’m very conservative, and I’m an engineer by training and by inclination as well. And you never think of engineers really as activists. Being involved in anything to do with social change was never something that I had considered or believed in or really cared about. I wasn’t political growing up. And then my freshman year of college I met a vegetarian, and life kind of took me on an entirely different path than I had planned up to that point. And it was all because of the room draw at the dorm. If the room draw had gone differently, my life would have been completely and utterly different. And so it was just by accident that my life has taken this path.

JASMIN: That’s so interesting. And I think that everyone listening to this can resonate with that because if people are listening to this then they probably care about animals, and we can all pinpoint that moment that things took a different turn. And I just was talking to you before we started recording about the fact that people who would generally listen to our podcast are folks who already are enlightened at least somewhat to animal issues and really kind of want to take the next step.

And as I said to you before we started recording, I just so strongly encourage our listeners to get a copy of The Accidental Activist, which is available for order [Amazon; B&N] already and it’s through Lantern. And I just can’t stress enough that Matt, you really come from a place of understanding that we’re not all born with a protest sign in our hand. And sometimes, as you just said so eloquently, life just happens and we wind up caring about these issues and we wind up realizing that this is our path in life whether we expected it or not, to speak up for those who are less lucky, be they animals or somebody else. So can you give us a snapshot of where you think the movement to reduce suffering is right now as opposed to 10 years ago?

MATT: Sure. I can even go back 20 years ago or even a little further than that when I first met my vegetarian roommate. In 1995 the British magazine The Economist did a cover story on animal issues. They did a lead editorial and they did an actual story, and they talked about how in the UK the focus of animal advocacy tended to be more on food animal issues and vegetarianism, but in the United States it focused more on vivisection and fur. And when I got started in activism, I did a lot of fur protests and vivisection protests, especially at Procter & Gamble. I was at the University of Cincinnati and Procter & Gamble’s world headquarters is in Cincinnati, and so I was kind of the stereotype of what The Economist had been saying about the movement. It was only over time that friends and I started to realize that the vast majority of animals that suffer and die in the United States every year are those that are killed for food.

From Animal Charity Evaluators; click for larger.

And to be able to make a difference for these animals, individual people just had to make a single change in their life. You didn’t have to pass a law, you didn’t have to change the government, you didn’t have to change the policy of a major multinational corporation. But at the time we were starting to come to these realizations there was very little activism along these lines. Bruce Friedrich, who was the coauthor with me on my first book, said that when he started at People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, only a minority of their grassroots budget went to vegetarian promotion. So I think The Economist was pretty right on with the fact that it was very focused on fur and vivisection.

Bruce Friedrich

And things have pretty much changed 180 degrees now. Now even the Humane Society of the United States has a major farmed animals campaign [note how it is integrated into their general support videos], and there are all sorts of grassroots organizations that are focused on farmed animal issues and promoting vegetarianism and doing it at the grassroots level, and doing it at a large level with getting lots of national media or television commercials or ads to get a lot of views or handing out millions of booklets or advertising on the internet to get tens of thousands of views of videos every month.

Paul Shapiro (above) and Josh Balk, of HSUS.

So it’s been a complete change in focus, and we’ve started to see the results of this, in the numbers of animals being killed in the United States has now been going down since 2006. So it’s really been an amazing and very encouraging change in focus.

JASMIN: That’s so exciting to hear, especially from someone like you who’s really been extremely involved for a very long time. And this is kind of a silly story but I kept thinking about it. As our listeners know and I think you know, we watch cartoons in the morning. And we were watching The Wild Thornberrys which we’ve spoken about before, and it’s like cartoon characters who are part of a nature show with their family, and so there’s a lot of animal rights issues that come up. And this morning we were watching it and they were serving this kind of hamburger that was made out of a rat, and then they showed the rat walking around. And we were like, “ew, horrible, I hate when that happens even in a cartoon!”

And Mariann said, “This show was made over 10 years ago,” like the late ‘90s I think, which, wow, is more like almost I guess 15 years ago now. Mariann said, “I bet if they made this now they wouldn’t have included that scene. They would have had more of a consciousness about it.” So I mean obviously I’m giving a ridiculous example, but it is illustrating your point that things have definitely changed. Now with that in mind, where do you expect it to be in 10 years from now?

MATT: In 10 years from now… In the past 10 years, maybe the past 5 years, I think the mechanism has been put in place – we have the pieces in place now. We have grassroots advocacy from handing out booklets and showing videos and humane education and providing food samples and airing television commercials. And then we have corporate campaigns to create reforms at the corporate level, and we have companies that are starting to respond to consumer demand. Chipotle is the most obvious example with their sofritas going nationwide because they’re selling so well.

And then you have companies like Hampton Creek Foods and Beyond Meat producing amazing products out there that appeal to meat eaters and not just longtime vegans. So I think that the mechanisms are in place, the work on the demand side and the work on the supply side, and this will just keep accelerating. As there are more people exploring vegetarian and vegan options, then there will be more companies supplying these options and the more companies that are supplying these options, the better they’ll be, the cheaper they’ll be, the more widespread they’ll be, making it easier for more and more people to explore vegetarian choices. And I think it’s just gonna keep snowballing and snowballing and snowballing.

MARIANN: Yeah, I have to agree with you. I think that there’s a lot of things in place now that can really lead to significant change. And I want to go back to your book a little bit because I think that the things that we’ve been talking about, what’s been happening in the last 10 years and what’s likely to happen in the next 10 years, are really covered on a very personal level in this book. Can you tell us a little bit about the essays in The Accidental Activist and the kind of range and how they’ve changed over the years?

MATT: Sure. Just to step back a little bit, when Bruce and I wrote The Animal Activist’s Handbook a few years ago, we wanted to make a formal book – almost like a textbook, a linear argument of why care about animals and then what to do about it specifically.

But my wife, Anne Green, wanted something different – something completely different this time. She wanted something that is, as you say, more personal and that covers a wider range of time to get to show different perspectives and how things have changed. She wanted to take the essays that I’ve written over the past decades and put them in a book, and group them by subject. So we did that, in part because there’s a power of narrative, human minds really respond to stories. We don’t respond so much to facts, we don’t respond so much to abstractions, but we respond to stories.

And I’ve made a lot of mistakes, shall we say, in my activist career, and I think that telling the stories of these mistakes can help people not make these mistakes and understand that other people have made mistakes or other people have felt frustrated, or other people have felt as though there’s no hope in the face of all this cruelty in the world.

But in the end I think the perspective I’ve gained over 20 something years is that we are in a very good place, we are making a lot of progress compared to 20 years ago, that I think ultimately the book has a very positive message in the end, even though it cuts back in time to when I wasn’t so positive, when I wasn’t very optimistic about things [be sure to read the Editor's Note]. I think that showing the range and change is important, so this is the point that Anne made, is that if you show the range of what you’ve gone through in 20 something years, that this will resonate with people, people who are just getting involved and they feel frustrated, or people who are just getting involved or have been involved for a few years and feel like nothing is changing. If they can see what I’ve gone through over the past couple decades, they will be more encouraged to take a longer view and thus be able to be active in a positive way for a longer period of time.

JASMIN: Another thing that we constantly talk about on the podcast and I just think we always will is what we should do with the word “vegan,” because we tend to not always see eye to eye with other advocates about that. And actually, saying that has the big caveat for me that I don’t think they’re wrong or I’m right. I just think that there’s a variety of ways of looking at it and I think that they all have legitimacy. I want to know your thoughts on the word “vegan.” I want to know if you think it should apply to food or people, and I’d like to know if you think it’s useful or too exclusionary.

MATT: That’s a great question and we could have an entire daylong seminar on this. And if you ask 20 vegans you’re gonna get 20 different answers. And I think the short answer is it depends on the audience. If you’re talking to a certain audience I think the word “vegan” intrigues people, and if you’re talking to people today it’s different than talking to people 20 years ago. 20 years ago very few people knew what the word “vegan” was, and when people used the word “vegan,” it was just used as a joke. The most I would ever see the word “vegan” 20 years ago were in comic strips. Foxtrot once used it as what this kid was going to do to rebel against his parents.

But now “vegan” has a different connotation to it. It has a different backstory because we have famous people who are vegan, or famous people with whom the word “vegan” is associated. We have Ellen DeGeneres, we have Bill Clinton, we have various sports stars and the like. And so when people hear the word “vegan” now it’s completely different than it was 20 years ago. And if you are talking, say, at a liberal arts college or a relatively progressive college, the word “vegan” is something that’s not foreign to them. They have friends who are vegan, they see “vegan” in the cafeteria, they see food labeled “vegan” in the cafeteria every day.

So I think that that is different than, say, speaking to Future Farmers of America (which I’ve done as well) or if you’re speaking to a middle-aged church group, for example. I think it varies a lot between what audience you’re talking to and in what context you’re speaking. Various activists have found that if they say the word “vegetarian” people have more interest in it. When they see the word “vegan,” they say, “Oh, I could never be vegan” and they shut down on that. If they see a shirt that says “Ask me why I’m vegetarian,” they’re like, “Oh. Well why are you vegetarian?” But again I think this is changing. I was hiking in the Canyon wearing one of my vegan shirts, and this older couple stopped me and said, “Oh, our granddaughter’s vegan. Where can I get her one of those shirts?”

JASMIN: Awesome!

MATT: And I’ve been running with Ellen in our vegan shirts and people will go, “Yay, vegan!” when we go past them. So this is something that wouldn’t have happened five years ago or ten years ago.

JASMIN: Ellen, your daughter, not Ellen DeGeneres.

MATT: Oh yeah, sorry. Ellen is my daughter.

JASMIN: We were like, wow, Matt Ball has connections! He goes running with Ellen DeGeneres.

MATT: Yeah. Sorry. Yeah, Ellen, our daughter, a lifelong vegan. But still, there is in some ways the stereotype of vegans. The book The Accidental Activist has stories from other people too. There are eight, ten people who wrote something that I put in the book. One of them is from Ellen and she tells the story of sitting around with her friends, and her friends think that Ellen, as a vegan kid, can’t eat this, can’t eat that, can’t eat the other thing. And Ellen is like, “No, I can eat something with sugar in it, I can eat something with flour in it.” And so they still had this stereotype that vegans are this really, really restrictive diet. So again it depends on the audience, it depends on the context. I wouldn’t say that I have a strong feeling one way or the other or that I have any really great answer to give about using the word “vegan” or not using the word “vegan.”

JASMIN: Well, I think that that right there is a great answer.

MARIANN: Yeah, and I think that your point that 20 years ago it had such a different connotation is in some ways an argument for using it at least in the right contexts because that wouldn’t have changed if people hadn’t used the word. So I agree with you that it’s not always easy to know how to use it and it can put some people off, it can bring some people in, but I like it.

JASMIN: You mentioned Ellen, so she’s what, 19 now or so?

MATT: Yes. She just finished her second year at Pomona College.

JASMIN: Okay, great. And you mentioned she was a lifelong vegan. Now, I just am wondering, she’s probably at a point now where she’s here to stay, but a lot of kids go through these rebellious phases. God, and I used to like shoplift, I was a bad teenager. And I just would worry if I had a kid that they would one day rebel against me and start to eat animals just to piss me off. Is that something that you worried about, or do you feel like that is a legitimate concern for people who are raising their kids vegan?

MATT: I actually assumed that this was going to happen. I always assumed that kids would rebel just for the sake of rebelling, so I think it’s a legitimate concern. But it never happened with our daughter. A lot of people have vegan kids that we know and we’re friends with lots of people who have vegan kids, most of whom, I think just about all of them are younger than Ellen. But most of them have not had problems with their child rebelling. If the child is raised with the age-appropriate understanding of why they’re vegan, I think it’s different than being taught something “because I said so.” “We’re going to church because I said so, we’re going to church because we’re Catholic,” or “we’re Jewish” or whatever. A lot of the parents we’ve talked to, they raised their child to love animals or to know about animals. And most children have a natural inclination to love animals, and so when you tie that to their diet at an early age, I think that has a stronger hold on them than telling them, “You’re doing this because I said so.” So that might be why most vegan kids we’ve heard about haven’t gone through a rebellious phase.

MARIANN: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense and it’s good to hear. I hope that most of those kids rebel by shoplifting like Jasmin did rather than by eating animals.

JASMIN: Shoplifting is bad. Do not shoplift.

MARIANN: So Peter Singer I know has had an enormous influence as we all know on many, many people in this movement. But I think it’s possible that he’s had even more of an influence on you than on most. Can you tell us a bit about why his work has impacted you so much?

MATT: Well, remind me to tell you another story about this in a second.

I think as an engineer by nature and by training, I really resonated with the utilitarian philosophy. I don’t want to put off your listeners, but I’m not an animal lover per se. I never grew up with a great love for animals, I never wanted to be a veterinarian, I never wanted to run a shelter or anything like this. What resonated for me was the suffering and what we can do about the suffering. So it wasn’t like I loved horses so I dedicated my life to horses, or I loved dogs so I dedicated my life to dogs. I dislike suffering and I know that suffering is terrible. And that’s the bottom line. There’s no reason why suffering is bad, it’s just that suffering is by definition bad.

And so I really resonated with the idea of reducing suffering as opposed to some of the more academic arguments of defining this word this way or trying to oppose something that’s somewhat more esoteric or hypothetical or not as real and concrete as suffering. For example, exploitation is bad, but exploitation is bad because it causes bad emotion, it causes suffering. And so again, the bottom line for me was suffering, and when I got to that point, when I understood the utilitarian message, it gave me a clear metric by which to pursue advocacy, because we have limited time and limited resources, so instead of doing whatever I found to be most compelling or I found to be most interesting or I found to be the saddest, I would pursue advocacy such that my choices would lead to the least amount of suffering in the world. And it was Professor Singer’s writings that really helped prompt me to come to this conclusion.

Peter and Anne, Sabino Canyon, AZ.

Years ago, we were talking with various members about the use of the word “vegan,” to hark back to your previous question, because we were thinking it might be easier to raise more money without using the word “vegan,” because then you could have non-vegans give you money ‘cause a lot of non-vegans are uncomfortable with writing a check that says “vegan” right there on the check. And Professor Singer told me there’s a real advantage to having a group out there, to having people out there who are sane and thoughtful and non-dogmatic using the word “vegan.” So it goes back to what you were saying before, the perception of the word “vegan” has changed because there have been people out there using the word “vegan” in a non-dogmatic way, in a thoughtful way, in a defensible way, and in a psychologically progressive way, presenting it not as dogma but as a way to address suffering. So that was another great insight to me that he provided. So he’s had a lot of influence on me in those ways.

MARIANN: Yeah, he makes everything so simple. It’s just not rocket science. And actually the fact that it’s not – and I don’t think you should apologize to our listeners because not everybody comes at this from this kind of emotional connection with animals. Some people do, some people don’t, and we want everybody to understand their obligations toward animals regardless of their particular emotional level. And I actually think, and it strikes us as a hopeful thing, that we’re pretty sure that almost everyone does agree with us. No one wants to see animals suffer. I mean, all right, maybe there are a few, but they’re kind of psychopaths. I mean, it’s a pretty universal sentiment. So I wonder if you agree with that, and I wonder if you could offer your insights as to how, if we live in such a world, we ended up here, and why people don’t stop participating when they find out.

MATT: Well, yeah, I’ll take the first part first.

MARIANN: I always ask two-part questions. It’s a curse.

MATT: That’s fine. I think you’re absolutely right that most people do agree with us. And even people who kill animals agree with us a lot of the times. I’ve had this happen over and over and over again. There’re often people who are belligerent towards me when I’m speaking to a group will end up coming around to at least some part of it, you know, veal is cruel, or when I show them how battery hens are treated, they’re like, “Wow, that really is cruel.” One time I was speaking in rural Pennsylvania, and I could see this guy was very agitated. And when it came time for questions he hopped up and he’s a hunter and he was ready to argue with me. And I told him, since my bottom line is suffering, I told him I would much, much rather live my life walking around living free and then be shot, than crammed into a bathroom with six other people for a few years and being force-fed food and then be slaughtered. And that defused him right there ‘cause he agreed that factory farming is bad, so we didn’t have to stand there and argue hunting, or we didn’t have to stand there and argue animal rights per se, but we could agree that what was going on at factory farms was wrong and should be opposed.

Now for the second part of your question, why don’t people change, I have experience with that. When I met my roommate freshman year when I was 18, I went vegetarian for a while and I thought I was starving to death and I went back to eating meat. Except for Fred my roommate, all my friends were meat eaters, my family were meat eaters. I planned my whole life to go to good restaurants and travel and have good food and the like. And I think that that’s a lot of it. I think a lot of it is social pressure, social norms, social awkwardness of being the vegetarian in the room, the vegan in the room. And it’s just, it’s very hard for people. It was hard for me, it’s very hard for most people to just be the one who stands out.

And people who rebel by going vegan to get back at their mother or to try to stand out, when they grow a little older they sometimes go back to eating meat so that they fit in now that they’re out in the world and have to get a job and the like. So a lot of it is social pressure. We’re social animals and we go by what’s the norm around us.

And the way this will change is as there are more vegetarians it will be easier to be vegetarian. But also the programs that people have started, that groups have started, like meatless Mondays, give people an excuse to explore these ideas in a socially acceptable or at least socially well-known forum. And people don’t have to say, “Yes, I’m gonna go vegetarian” or “Yes, I’m vegan now.” They can start exploring it and see what it’s like and have other people around them maybe try it out. A big portion of what’s going on in society now isn’t just, everyone’s a meat eater and then we’re picking people off one at a time to go vegan. It’s that this person is vegetarian and they’re going vegan, this person is semi-vegetarian, they’re going vegetarian. This person is interested in it and they’re eating three or four meatless meals a week and they’re continuing to evolve.

And as it becomes more widespread it will become less socially awkward. As it becomes more widespread it will be easier to go out to dinner with people and you can have the vegan option at Chipotle or the vegan option at the other restaurant, or you can take people to Veggie Grill if you’re lucky enough to live around a Veggie Grill or a Native Foods or another good vegan restaurant. There was a Yelp review of a vegan restaurant that I read, and the person said, “I’m a meat eater through and through, but if Soul Vegetarian was in my neighborhood I would be eating vegan all the time.” And it’s just that these things are going to expand. William Gibson, the science fiction writer, said, “The future is here. It’s just unevenly distributed.

I think that’s the truth: I think our vegan future is within view. It’s right there in the Yelp review. This guy, he’s a meat eater but he loves this vegan food. if it was easily available to him he’d eat it all the time. And as that becomes the case, more and more people like him will be eating vegan food all the time. So it’s just, it’s slow going but we’re making progress and we know how the progress is going to continue.

JASMIN: Well, I would love to hear an excerpt from your new book, The Accidental Activist.

MATT: Okay, this is a short essay after my wife Anne Green and I watched a movie. It’s called “Lincoln and the First Step.”

[Read Lincoln and the First Step at]

JASMIN: Well, that was really, really beautiful. I love the way you think. And the way you articulate your thoughts I think can be really important for people who are in the process now of honing in on their viewpoints. And even people who already know the way they think, just hearing a different point of view from someone like you who’s been involved for so long can be really groundbreaking. And you continue to inspire me. I’m very excited about The Accidental Activist and I think that our listeners will get a lot from hearing your wise words. So thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and for joining us today in Our Hen House, Matt, and we hope to stay on top of your future projects and your future plans. And please visit us often, and thanks again for joining us.

MATT: Thanks, Jasmin and Mariann, it was a pleasure.

JASMIN: That was Matt Ball. And you can learn more about his book and order it at


Sunday, June 21, 2015

What the Public Reads

If you read only a stream of news from vegans, you probably think every animal product is a deadly poison. But even if that is the truth, all that really matters is what the public believes. Here is an example of what they are reading these days:

Can’t resist red meat? It may not be the healthiest menu option but some equally tasty side orders could limit the damage

A succulent steak with creamy peppercorn sauce or a chunky burger laden with cheese. Could there be a better route to heaven (via a heart attack)?

Meat often gets a bad rap when it comes to health. When consumed in abundance, red meat probably does raise the risk of colorectal cancer and cardiovascular disease.

So what do you do if steak and blue cheese just happen to be your favourite flavour combination? Well, you might be on to a winner – it's just possible that adding dairy to your meat consumption might limit the damage.

First, it might help mop up some of the fat. France has one of the highest levels of cheese consumption in the world, yet one of the lowest levels of coronary heart disease. Some put this down to the fact that the French also consume a lot of vegetables, but several studies suggest that consuming cheese or milk causes a drop in the levels of "bad" LDL cholesterol in people's blood. "When you look at people who eat a lot of cheese compared to those who don't eat any, there's no difference in cardiovascular risk or diabetes – and if anything it tends to be beneficial," says Arne Astrup at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark.

One possible explanation is that the calcium present in abundance in cheese is binding to fatty acids and cholesterol in the gut, causing some of them to be excreted. However, giving people calcium supplements doesn't seem to have the same beneficial effect. It's also possible that certain bacteria or fermentation products in the cheese influence the balance of nutrients that are absorbed by the body.

Super spuds

Calcium consumption could also be a way to reduce the damage caused by another constituent of red meat: heme. This iron-rich substance plays a key role in transporting oxygen around the body, but free heme can react with DNA in the cells lining the gut and boost the risk of developing colorectal cancer.

Calcium seems to mop up heme and render it harmless; rats fed a heme-rich diet seem to be protected against its carcinogenic effects if calcium is added to their food. Sadly for steak-lovers, high levels of calcium react with protein, rendering meat hard and dry. Adding milk, cheese or yogurt to the meal might have the same effect, but it's unclear how much you would need to eat to negate heme completely. And high cheese consumption is bad for your waistline and so can bring health problems of its own.

What about vegetables? The EPIC trial, one of the largest investigations into the health effects of red meat, found that the early death risk was lower in meat eaters who reported consuming lots of fibre (abundant in many plant-based foods) than in people who ate very little meat. Similarly, people benefit from eating cold potatoes with their meat. It appears that what is called butyrylated resistant starch, produced when potatoes are cooked and then left to cool, protects against DNA damage to gut cells and so may blunt red meat's association with colorectal cancer.

Then there's processed meat, widely considered more harmful than fresh on account of the nitrite preservatives used in its production. These can react with fats in the diet and produce other cancer-promoting substances. Here, too, fruit and vegetables may provide a solution as some of them contain chemicals called flavonoids. Concentrated flavonoids are currently being investigated as an alternative to nitrites for preserving meats. "They stop microbes from growing and the meat has a shelf life which is acceptable to meat producers," says Gunter Kuhnle at the University of Reading, UK. "The idea is to help the food industry to produce meat where the links with colon cancer are at least reduced, or maybe not there at all."

From issue 3023 of New Scientist magazine, page 32-33.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Embrace and Encourage - Lessons from Three Decades

Talk in San Diego, March 26, 2015

Before we open it up for discussion, I want to share a bit of my story with you, as a way to frame some of the lessons I’ve learned since I first stopped eating animals nearly 30 years ago.

Loved meat - and groovy pants!
Growing up, and then when I went off to college in 1986, I was not even close to being a vegetarian. I loved going out to eat. I loved steak and pizza. I didn’t like any vegetables except corn on the cob.

But then, my roommate in college was an older transfer student, two inches taller than me and probably 70 pounds heavier. Fred was an imposing guy. He was also a vegetarian. And of our circle of friends, he decided I was the most likely to change, so he regularly told me about the cruelty of factory farms and industrial slaughterhouses.

Believe me: I did my best to tune him out.

I didn’t want to know anything about what went on. Soon, though, I had stopped eating animals. I lived on the cafeteria’s Captain Crunch and cheese sandwiches on white bread. And french fries -- lots of french fries. Not surprisingly, I wasn’t particularly happy. My Mom was sure I was doing permanent harm to my health. I couldn’t really argue.

So I went back to eating meat.

But I was never able to completely forget what was being done to animals. I had lost the bliss of ignorance.

The next year, I lived in an apartment, responsible for my own food purchases. One day, I was looking in the mirror and the thought just came to me: “How can I consider myself a good person if I continue to eat animals?”

I had no answer.

And then (this is entirely true) the medicine cabinet started shaking, and a deafening “Bam! Bam! Bam!” filled the room.

I have never eaten meat since.

After that, I joined the local animal rights group. I learned about the reality behind eggs and dairy. But again, I didn’t immediately jump to veganism. I bought free range and amish products -- “happy” eggs and dairy, if you will.

Again, I evolved over time. The more vegans I met, the closer I came to being vegan myself. Eventually, I stopped eating all animal products and entered the next stage:

The angry vegan.

As I discuss in the essay, “Letter to a Young Matt” (in TAA):

I had finally, finally come to recognize the brutality that went on behind the scenes. But it seemed almost no one around me cared. Even worse than that, they mocked and attacked me for being vegan! I mean, not only did they support cruelty, but they ridiculed me for not eating animals!

Of course, I had to show them: show them how ethical I was, how much cruelty I could purge from my life, how far I would go for the animals. Being vegan became my defining characteristic, and I became obsessed with justifying and glorifying veganism (and, thus, of course, myself).

Debates about language, philosophy, and hypotheticals all took on vital importance. I had to take part in any protest that came along: driving long distances, being out in sub-zero weather, getting arrested. I couldn’t “turn my back” on the animals. I was just that dedicated!

Now don’t get me wrong: I don’t blame Young Matt. In the face of what is being done to animals, being angry is entirely justified. Feeling desperate to “do something, do anything” is understandable. And coming up with new arguments, new claims, new chants and slogans and protests … well, it all seemed logical at the time.

I had one more lesson to learn, which I had to learn the hard way.

I finally realized that the irreducible heart of what matters is suffering. Before then, even though I was absolutely sure I knew everything, I really didn’t know anything about suffering. Since then, though, I’ve developed a chronic disease and have experienced times when I thought I was going to die, times when I wished I would die. Before then, I worried about abstractions and words and principles; I argued about exploitation and oppression and liberation. I didn’t take suffering seriously.

Now, knowing what suffering really is, and knowing how much there is in the world, all my previous concerns seem, well . . . ridiculous.

I first ended up in the emergency room over 20 years ago. I then spent months and months bouncing from doctor to doctor. It was only then, once I had first-hand experience with real suffering, that I knew my life’s true calling.

Veganism, animal rights, anti-speciesism, definitions, abstractions, arguments -- all these are relevant only inasmuch as we use them to actually reduce suffering.

And that’s what I’ve dedicated my life to ever since.

So what are the lessons we can take from my journey?

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First, my experience is in keeping with one key fact: the vast majority of people who stop eating animals eventually go back to eating meat. The Humane Research Council’s survey found this to be the case for about 80% of people who go vegetarian. 80%!

As advocates, we haven’t had enough success since Peter Singer published Animal Liberation in the 1970s. Given this absurd rate of recidivism -- 4 out of 5 quitting! -- it isn’t surprising that the percentage of vegetarians in this country hasn’t grown in proportion to our efforts.

Clearly, we have a lot to learn if we are to make significant progress. There are two important insights from the HRC study.

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First: The data clearly shows the biggest difference between those who are currently vegetarian, compared to those who stopped being vegetarian, is that current vegetarians are motivated by "Animal Protection" -- 68% of people who are still veg, vs only 27% of those who went back to eating animals. The people who were motivated primarily for health were the ones who went back to eating animals. So obviously, if we want to help animals, we should give up trying to get people to go veg for health or other forms of self-interest. Rather, we will help animals the most by actively advocating for animals.

Second, the people who go veg the quickest are also more likely to go back to eating animals. I’ve seen this over and over. For example, two close friends of mine went vegan overnight. Now, neither of them is even vegetarian.  On the other hand, people who, like me, evolve slowly to an ethical diet are more likely to keep making compassionate choices.

The takeaway from this is to embrace and encourage everyone who has ever taken steps to help animals. I was a failed vegetarian. I bought “happy” animal products. I can tell you -- if people had screamed at me, attacked me for my failings, the issue in my mind would have changed. I wouldn’t have still been thinking about animals; I would have been focused on the angry, fanatical vegans who were attacking me.

This is backed up by the data on two levels. The first, as referenced in Nick Cooney’s book Veganomics, is that people who buy “humane” meat eat less meat than the average person, and are more likely to go vegetarian.

Related to this is the most important point: the number of animals killed in this country is going down.

Given that reducing the number of animals suffering and dying is the bottom line, it is worth unpacking this good news a bit.

For decades, the number of animals killed in this country skyrocketed. Prompted to “eat healthy,” people replaced red meat with chickens. Since it takes over 200 chickens to provide the same amount of flesh as one cow, the move to “healthy eating” led directly to billions more individuals suffering. Given that chickens are much more intensively raised, the amount of suffering went through the roof!

But since 2006, the number of animals killed in the US has fallen, even as the human population has gone up. Unfortunately, this hasn’t been because of a significant rise in the percentage of vegetarians and vegans.

Rather, fewer animals are suffering and dying because of the number of people who are eating fewer animals -- meat reducers.

Knowing this fact reinforces a point made previously: We shouldn’t attack or obsess over people who don’t immediately go veg. For example, we shouldn’t vilify those who cut back on meat or who talk about “humane” meat.

Instead, we should embrace -- and encourage -- every step anyone takes to help animals.

My example shows that the path to a compassionate life is often an uneven journey. There are many similar stories. A friend of mine went veg as a teenager, and his brother mocked him relentlessly. That brother?

Paul Shapiro, who later went on to found Compassion Over Killing. He is a member of the Animal Rights Hall of Fame, and one of the most important voices for animals in the country.

In addition to not giving up on anyone, we should also look into what specifically causes people to change their diet in a way that helps animals. In addition to HRC’s survey, the best source of this information is a large study by The Humane League.

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Here are two graphs of the motivations for people who are veg or meat reducers. They show that of the activist tools available to us, video is very important -- documentaries and online videos. This is why many groups focus on using the most modern tools available to us, rather than what is easiest, most popular, or what was cutting edge 20 years ago.

These graphs also show the importance of conversation, which gets to another important lesson: The power of example. I would actually put this in an even broader context:

The impact of what we personally eat absolutely pales in comparison to the impact we can have with our example, our advocacy, and our donations. Imagine if you have a conversation with several people, or convince a group to watch an online ad, or fund the screening of a documentary, and as a result, just one person stops eating animals.

With just that relatively minor effort, you will have done as much good as every compassionate choice you will make the rest of your life.

Now there’s tons more we can discuss, which is why I wrote these two books and tried to keep my prepared remarks short. But before we open it up, this last point bears repeating: Each one of us can have a profound impact in the world.

We don’t do this by being the angry vegan. The key to changing the world is to set aside our ego, to refuse to be driven by dogma, to refuse to give into anger and hatred.

Instead, we can focus on positive, pragmatic, practical outreach that is entirely dedicated to helping as many animals as possible.

As I hope I’ve made clear, it was extremely difficult for me to stop trying to glorify my own veganism. I was the worst offender in terms of worrying about words and definitions and winning arguments. But now, I think back to times when I was in so much pain that I wanted to die. Wanted to die.

And I know there are animals out there who are going through that right now. You know that, too. You know that what is being done to animals right now is so brutal, so terrible, it hurts just to watch the footage. It hurts to even think about it.

Embrace your empathy! We can let our fundamental compassion drive us. Our basic goodness can keep us focused on the bottom line -- helping animals as much as possible -- while preventing distractions like dogma and definitions.

We should do this because a truly different world is possible! When I stopped eating animals nearly 30 years ago, I didn’t believe the world could change.

Now I know it can. The future is in our hands. The world can change if enough of us embrace radical pragmatism and set a realistic, reasonable example. If enough of us let our advocacy and our contributions be guided by having the greatest possible impact. If enough of us recognize the unstoppable power of compassion matched with reason.

It is an incredible time to be vegetarian. Billionaires investing in vegan companies. Brilliant, bottom-line dedicated individuals building companies to reach the mainstream, not just vegans. Food technology advancing like crazy.

Restaurants like Veggie Grill and Native Foods spreading like wildfire and reaching an ever-increasing audience. The number of animals slaughtered going down.

Old Matt, in San Diego.
We are at the start of a fundamental transformation of our society. You can play a pivotal part. Please do. Thank you.