Monday, June 22, 2015

Our Hen House Interview, Anniversary Edition

Interview with Matt Ball
By OUR HEN HOUSE
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 TheAccidentalActivist.net.]

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 TheAccidentalActivist.net

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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?

Click for larger.
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.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Helping Animals: What Do the Facts Say?

Here is the fundamental question:

Do we want fewer animals to suffer on factory farms?

It is important to decide if this is our bottom line, because the facts indicate a course of action that isn’t always in keeping with popular trends in animal advocacy.

Sheer Numbers

The first and most important fact is simple numbers. The most thorough analysis (by Harish Sethu on his Counting Animals blog) shows that the average American is responsible for the factory farming and slaughter of about two dozen animals a year. Of these, more than 23 of them are birds.


In other words, if we convince one person to replace red meat with cruelty-free foods, that person will spare less than one animal a year from factory farms and industrial slaughterhouses.


But if we convince people to stop eating birds, we nearly eliminate their support of factory farms!

Psychology in the Real World

The other vital insight is what won Herb Simon his Nobel Prize in Economics: People don’t make optimal or “perfect” decisions. Rather, almost everyone makes economic (and often even value) choices based on what is a bit “better” or “good enough.”

With regards to cruelty to animals, this plays out in several ways. In almost every sense, eating chickens is considered “better” than eating cows or pigs. For example, we might truly believe a certain diet is best for water usage. But what most people see is that chicken is now even less expensive relative to beef. Of those who actually care about water usage, the majority see chicken being much more efficient than beef.

In fact, on just about every measure, chicken is perceived as “better” -- in terms of environmental impact, in terms of global warming, and in terms of healthy eating. With our natural affinity for our fellow mammals, the cruelty chickens suffer often seems less important, too.

Given that it takes more than 200 chickens to provide the same number of meals as one cow, we simply must avoid anything that risks encouraging anyone to replace red meat with chickens. If we even slightly support someone’s move from red meat to chicken, we are risk causing much more suffering in the world.

Furthermore, basic psychology has shown that the “big ask” is far less likely to lead to any change at all, compared to a smaller ask. Relative to a complete overhaul, simply cutting back on eating chickens can seem far more achievable, and still have a huge impact.

“Why not my diet?”

Of course, we each think our personal diet, philosophy, lifestyle, and worldview is the correct one and the only one worth promoting.

But our personal perfection doesn’t matter. In the past quarter century, I have met many absolutely brilliant individuals, and many hard-core dedicated activists. In the end, though, it doesn’t matter how smart, consistent, or committed we are.

All that matters is how many animals are suffering. And to reduce that suffering, we have to influence more and more new people.

The bottom line is neither the words we use, nor how internally consistent our message is. The bottom line is how many new people we can help inspire to take a meaningful step that has a significant impact for animals.

In other words: It doesn’t matter what we want. It only matters what we achieve.

And to achieve as much as possible, we have to reach out to new people where they are, not shout at them from where we want them to be. We have to understand how people change. We have to make sure our message will resonate with new people as both compelling as well as achievable.

Lessons from the Real World

We’ve learned a lot in the past decades.

One is that the vast majority of people who make significant dietary changes go back to eating animals. In short, we are losing the vast majority of the impact we ever achieve.

Even more important is that the number of animals being factory farmed and slaughtered is actually going down.

Given that reducing the number of animals suffering and dying is our stated 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 than cattle, the amount of suffering increased dramatically.

Since 2006, though, the number of animals killed in the US has actually decreased, even as the American population has increased. This isn’t because of a significant rise in the percentage of people adopting an entirely new diet. Rather, fewer animals are suffering and dying because of an increase in the number of people who are eating fewer animals -- meat reducers.

Bottom Line

If we really care about animals as the bottom line, we can take away two simple lessons:

1. People choosing to eat chicken is the main driver for the brutality of factory farms and industrial slaughterhouses. Therefore, we should focus on reducing the number of chickens people eat.

2. People decreasing their meat intake can actually reduce the number of animals suffering and dying. Instead of criticizing this proven way to help animals, we should embrace, refine, and expand it.

If we follow both these guides, we will be able to have a much bigger impact in the real world.



Monday, June 1, 2015

The Problem of "Good Enough"

I recently came across this post by James McWilliams, Agnostic Carnivores and Global Warming: Why Enviros Go After Coal and Not Cows. It contains this excerpt:

Many consumers think they can substitute chicken for beef and make a meaningful difference in their dietary footprint. Not so. ... When it comes to lowering the costs of mitigating climate change, the study shows that a diet devoid of ruminants would reduce the costs of fighting climate change by 50 percent; a vegan diet would do so by over 80 percent.
It actually seems to me that cutting the cost of fighting climate change by 50 percent is making a very "meaningful difference."

Of course, it isn't the biggest difference we could make. But no one is able to optimize their life to absolutely make the biggest difference. More importantly, as Nobel Laureate Herb Simon pointed out, people rarely make any decision based on what is optimal. Rather, we act on what is better, what is "good enough."

And when it comes to health, water usage, global warming, and other impacts, chicken is almost always meaningfully "better" than beef. Unfortunately, this makes chicken "good enough" for most people in most situations.



Monday, May 25, 2015

Animal-First Advocacy, Part 1

I'm finishing up a report on the University of Arizona research done this past Spring semester. You can see the slides of the opening presentation I gave; below is a summary of that presentation and the subsequent conversation.

Something was wrong.
As I worked through my prepared remarks to a class of 20 graduate students at the University of Arizona, I sensed a distinct lack of interest. Funny slides went by without even a chuckle. My questions went ignored. Many in the audience simply looked down – not to take notes, but simply because they weren’t engaged.
I went to my emergency procedure, asking:
“How many of you have had a bad vegan experience?”
To my left, the professor laughed.
Only later, after the class had ended and all the lingering students had left, did the professor tell me they hadn’t wanted me there. When she had discussed the class topic and my visit in the opening class the previous week, the consensus was, “Vegans are angry. Vegans are fanatics. Vegans are unreasonable.” And “Vegans are nuts."
When I was standing in front of the class, of course, I didn’t know this. But having broken the ice with “bad vegan experience,” the questions came quickly. I did my best to emphasize that my only goal was to reduce suffering as much as possible. For example: I’d rather that three people ate half as many animals than have one person go vegan. This both saves more animals, and each meat reducer has more potential for further change.
One of the early questions was, “Do you think all killing is wrong?” In a twist on the Socratic method, I replied, “What do you think my answer will be?”
“That all killing is wrong.”
“And what do you think?”
“Not all killing is wrong. Mercy killings, for example.”
Well, yes, I agreed. I would never keep a dog or cat alive if the rest of their life was only going to be suffering. I’ve experienced times when I’ve wanted to die; if I knew all I had to look forward to was more suffering, I’d want the option to end it.

And yes, I admitted the general treatment of different species does vary. I’d much rather be reincarnated as a cow destined to be slaughtered for beef than as a chicken being raised for meat (to make it fair, one would have to be reincarnated ~250 times as a chicken – a truly hellish scenario – to provide the same amount of “meat” as a cow).
As the students realized I wasn’t there to preach at them (one told me later this is what they were expecting), but instead to have an honest exploration of the issues, the questions got deeper. For example: No, I’d rather not exist at all than be a factory farmed chicken or pig. But I don’t know if non-existence would be preferable to the life of any cow in any circumstance.
This entire time, I knew some fellow vegans would strongly disagree with my shades of grey answers. But the point wasn’t to reinforce an easy, black-and-white worldview. My goal was to get these non-vegan students to take all animals seriously, to really consider the issues and the implications of their choices, and to frame their research in an honest, constructive manner.
It worked. Over and over, someone would say, “I never thought of it that way.” “I never considered that.” “No one has ever put it like that before.” “I can see that.” Previously, they had all “known” – and had rejected out-of-hand – the caricature of the vegan worldview (all killing wrong, honey as bad as veal, etc.). But this was a different ballgame.


The discussion went on and on, respectful, insightful, and sincere. It went on after the class was supposed to end, but no one left. Eventually, the professor stepped in, but students stayed around to ask more questions. Since then, I’ve been contacted by many of them who had additional questions or who want to talk more.
In the end, the class wasn’t a “vegan experience,” good or bad. It was a discussion about normally unseen animals, the individuals these students rarely (or never) considered previously.
The professor – not a vegetarian but sympathetic – was surprised and pleased: “You won them over. You really won them over.”



Saturday, May 16, 2015

Changing People's Minds


This This American Life podcast is very interesting, especially the first story. Just shows, once again, how important a positive example is, and how screaming and anger won't change people's minds.

UPDATE: Turns out the data was faked for this. Yikes!
Thanks to Brendon Brewer for noting this.


Friday, May 8, 2015

Even on the Far Right

While retrospective judgment tends to make us feel superior to our ancestors, it should really evoke humility. Surely some contemporary practices will be deemed equally abominable by succeeding generations. The only question is: Which ones?

I’ve long thought it will be our treatment of animals. I’m convinced that our great-grandchildren will find it difficult to believe that we actually raised, herded and slaughtered them on an industrial scale — for the eating.

-Charles Krauthammer 

Monday, May 4, 2015

Definitely Worth a Read

I shared this article by Josh Tetrick with a friend, and she said: "Thanks for sharing, that's one of the best vegan perspectives I've read in a long time. It's totally true and I wish more activists would realize that."

People Aren't the Problem


PS: May the Fourth be with you!


Thursday, April 30, 2015

Nick Cooney on Optimal Messaging for Animals

A Rose by Any Other Name?

What Psychology Research Can Tell Us about Messaging

By Nick Cooney, author of Change of Heart

As a longtime leafleter, one of the questions that I have to answer before going out to spread the message of compassion is, which booklet should I use? Sure they’re all pretty much the same on the inside, but the titles and the front covers are very different.

If my purpose in leafleting was to express my own beliefs as accurately as possible, I’d hand out a "vegan"-branded booklet every time. After all, I do want everyone to go vegan. But expressing my own beliefs isn’t the reason I go leafleting. I leaflet because I want to change other people’s behaviors so as to help animals. So the question of which booklet to use is now a very different one: “Which booklet will create the most behavior change, thereby sparing the greatest number of farmed animals a lifetime of suffering?”

Each of us probably has our own gut instinct about which booklet is most effective. Fortunately, we don’t have to rely on our gut instincts when choosing which booklet to use. Decades of psychology research into what does (and does not) motivate people to change their behavior can give us some scientific insight. To illustrate what I mean, let me tell you about a homeless man named Harold.

Psychology researcher Laura Shaw and her colleagues set up a study in which student participants were told about the Friend In Need program, a university program pairing students with homeless people. Student participants were told about Harold Mitchell, a Friend In Need client who became homeless three years ago after losing his job due to illness. Some students were told that a large request would be made of them: that they volunteer six hours of their time to work directly with Harold. Other students were told they would be asked to volunteer just one hour of their time stuffing envelopes. A third group of students was not told that any request would be made of them. All of the students were then instructed to choose which message about Harold they would rather hear: a calm, information-only message about Harold’s needs, or an emotional appeal that detailed what Harold was going through and the suffering it had caused him.

The students who expected that only a small request would be made of them (one hour stuffing envelopes), and those who did not expect any request would be made of them, did not care which appeal they heard. It did not matter to them whether they were moved by Harold’s story, because they didn’t have much to lose. On the other hand, students who were told they would be asked to spend a long time volunteering with Harold did not want to hear the emotional appeal. They did not want to hear detailed accounts of what Harold was going through and the suffering that his homelessness caused him. Why? Because if they heard the details of Harold’s life they would probably feel sympathy for him, and might end up agreeing to volunteer six hours to help him. Better for them to just turn off their emotional switches and not be moved by Harold’s plight – after all, who wants to give up six hours of their life? (Shaw, Batson and Todd 1994).

The phenomenon researchers were examining is called empathy avoidance and it boils down to this: when we think that having sympathy for someone might inconvenience us, we try to avoid feeling sympathy. We leafleters experience this firsthand all the time. Who among us hasn’t handed a booklet to a passerby, only to hear them exclaim seconds later: “I don’t want to look at this! It’s going to make me stop eating meat!” And into the trash can the booklet goes.

So, you may be wondering, just what does empathy avoidance have to do with booklets? People who receive an explicitly "vegan" or "vegetarian" booklet know as soon as they receive it that a very large request is going to be made of them: that they change their diet dramatically. They’d have to find new foods to eat, new restaurants to go to, new grocery stores to shop at, and so forth. Because they know a large request is being made of them, they will not want to read the emotional appeal on the inside of the pamphlet. The saddening stories of pigs, chickens, and cows subjected to intense cruelties in factory farms would stir up their sympathy, and could cause them to – gasp – give up meat. As a result of empathy avoidance, people who get a booklet with one of these titles should be more likely to throw it away without opening it to read through the message inside.

On the other hand, people who receive a booklet without the word "vegan" in the title or on the back page either don’t know what is being asked of them yet, or don’t think that a particularly large request is being made. They’ll be more likely to read through the contents of the pamphlet because they don’t feel like they have much to lose by doing so. It’s only after reading through pages of photos and information about the cruelties of factory farming that they then come to the message encouraging them to change their diet. By that point the booklet has already stirred up their empathy for farmed animals, hopefully enough so that they can’t say no to our request that they change their diet.

Studies on empathy avoidance aren’t the only ones that suggest that booklets without the word "vegan" or "vegetarian" should be significantly more effective at changing people’s diets. For example, communication researchers have found that when people learn someone is about to try to convince them of something important, they become less likely to be persuaded (Freedman and Sears 1965; Allyn and Festinger 1961). Why is this the case? Researchers theorize that knowing a particular message is coming gives people the opportunity to drum up counter-arguments in their heads, and to look for biases the speaker may have. Whatever the reason, the takeaway is that booklets with more vague titles are likely to be more persuasive. People who receive one aren’t immediately sure of what they’re being encouraged to do, so they don’t have the ability to automatically start discrediting the message.

Whew! Who knew leafleting could be so complicated? Yet if we want to create as much behavior change as possible, in order to reduce as much suffering as possible, we need to think carefully about the message we use. Do we just want to express our own beliefs, or do we want to use the message that is most likely to persuade others? Even if non-V-word booklets are just 10% more effective (and my guess is they are dramatically more effective), switching to them in your own outreach will mean a life or death difference for thousands if not tens of thousands of farm animals.


Thanks for reading, and happy leafleting!