Tuesday, August 23, 2016

The Only Way!

What if you were told that eating raw broccoli was the only way to be healthy? And the only way to be an environmentalist – anything else was killing the planet? And that if you ate anything other than raw broccoli, you were a murderer?

What if you were told this over and over, via email and social media, t-shirts and bumper stickers? Would you eat only raw broccoli?

Furthermore, what would you think of the broccolians? Would you carefully listen to and consider their case, or would you avoid them?

To the average American, vegans = broccolians.

I've seen it happen, first-hand, over and over, even from people who had been personally shown pictures of delicious vegan food – they think vegans eat only tasteless salads.

And people will go out of their way to avoid dealing with a vegan.

I'm not just saying this to be mean or pick fights with vegans. And I'm not just saying this from personal experience. Marketing research done in 2015 at the Eller Business School of the University of Arizona also showed this. Every one of the four investigative teams of MBA students found that the general public views veganism as impossible, and vegans as annoying.

I know this seems misplaced, to criticize vegans when they are standing up against the truly horrific brutality that is inflicted on so many animals. I also understand the argument that we just have to stand up more, be more outspoken, more in-your-face: "The further out we are, the more leverage we have to pull society with us."

Margaret Mead might be patron saint of this way of thinking, with her quote, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has."

But here's the punchline. You know who else likes to quote Mead? Terrorists. White supremacists. And just about every fringe group unhappy with some aspect of society.

Just because some groups of dedicated people have changed the world doesn't mean every dedicated group changes the world. The vast majority of efforts to change the world fail. Nothing – not slogans nor "scholarly" rationalizations – will change that.

In my opinion, looking closely at history, our main opportunity to lessen suffering and alter society's relationship with other animals is by choosing strategies and messages via dispassionate reasoned analysis. It may not feel good, it may not go viral in vegan crowds on social media, but it is the best way to avoid the failures of the majority of attempts to change the world. Otherwise, we may as well join the broccolians.

Monday, August 22, 2016

The World Does Not Work the Way We Want It To

One of the most common responses to my post about the skyrocketing number of chickens suffering and dying in the United States has been: "Just wait until climate change kicks in!"

But climate change is already impacting markets, and its impact is to move people from eating cows to eating chickens. Not to be repetitive, but given that it takes over 200 chickens to make the same number of meals as one cow, this move leads to vastly more suffering and death.

The latest example of this is the worldwide move to ban beef, as discussed in this article about Leonardo DiCaprio. Of course, over and over and all across the world, it has been shown that people who cut back on red meat eat more chickens.

Tobias Leenaert,  one of the founders of the Belgian organization Ethical Vegetarian Alternative, has a really insightful saying: You Are Not Your Audience (YANYA).

This was one of my greatest failings in my early years of advocacy – I chose my message based on what sounded good to me, rather than what would have the biggest impact on non-vegetarians.

Nobel laureate Herb Simon makes the important point that took me years to understand: People don’t make optimal choices. Rather, we make choices that are good enough.

Consider this chart:

Where the Y-axis is any negative measure – pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, water usage, saturated fat, etc.

If they care at all about the measure, the vast majority of people would look at this chart and say, “I should give up A.” And a few might say, “I should give up A, B, and C.” No one will say, “I should only consume I.”

But put labels on the chart:

And now vegans see something different: a case for veganism. It will, of course, be true – a vegan will generally use less water, or cause less pollution / global warming, or consume less saturated fat.

The labels don’t change anything, however. Non-vegan people are still going to see beef as bad, or beef, pork, and veal as bad – and everything else as "good." (And if you truly want to be "perfect," you must only eat potatoes. Good luck selling that.)

Here is a real-world example of my sample graphs:

Click for larger. 
Of course, we see what we consider to be the best ("vegan is best!"). But the general public just sees things that are worse (beef, sheep), and things that are better (pork, chicken, eggs).

Given that any switch from big animals to small leads to much more suffering, we simply can't afford to offer any argument that even might lead people switch to eating birds. Continuing climate change won't help the spread of veganism; it will increase the horrors faced by birds.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

The Real World vs The Vegan Bubble

One of the most common arguments against maximum harm-reduction advocacy is: "But we're already winning! Veganism is surging in popularity, and everyone is interested in being vegan!"

For anyone actually concerned with helping animals in the real world (including myself), a reality check is often helpful. This new analysis, Americans Love Their Meat, provides the latest sobering reality.

"Last year, per capita meat consumption in the U.S. increased at the fastest rate in four decades, climbing 5% compared with a year prior."
If you find this troubling (here's a longer take), and understand the numbers involved...

...please join and support groups like One Step For Animals whose advocacy is not driven by ideology, but dedicated to real world results.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016


Throughout his career, he operated in the realm of the possible, taking the world as it was, not as he wished it to be, and he often inveighed against a dogmatic insistence upon perfection.
-Alexander Hamilton

Sunday, August 14, 2016

The Difference

Although the parallels between the human and animal rights movements are abundant, it seems to me the latter have a significantly  larger task than the slavery abolitionists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries did, given that even at the zenith of the slave trade only a small portion of the world's population owned or traded in slaves, whereas the vast majority of the world's population eats meat and uses animal projects. As the animal rights attorney Steven Wise notes, animals are even more essential to our daily lives than slaves were in nineteenth-century America - including personally, psychologically, economically, religiously, and especially legally, where animals are property and their use protected by law, which is not always easy to change. Even if the arguments in favor of animal rights are better than those opposing them - which I think they are - bumping up the percentage of the population committed to a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle from the low single digits into the high double digits is going to be a daunting task. People didn't have to own slaves to survive. But people do have to eat, and meat is delicious to most, relatively cheap, and readily available, and therefore (still) a popular commodity to fulfill that need. In the United States it took a civil war to finally abolish slavery, and that was with only a small fraction of citizens owning slaves. When more than 95 percent of the population eats meat, that's a daunting difference.
-Michael Shermer, The Moral Arc


Thursday, July 28, 2016

All it takes for evil to triumph....

Let’s be totally honest.

One of our political parties excuses, defends, and even celebrates the police every time an unarmed minority is killed.

This is not surprising, given that this is the party of white supremacists, given that this is their nominee, and given that their chosen selling point is convincing Caucasians that all brown people are out to steal from or even kill them. This party has created an atmosphere so poisonous (and highly armed) that it would be irrational for black people not to live in fear (1, 2).

One party doesn’t just dislike LGBT individuals, but actively fosters hatred and violence. As Michelangelo Signorile writes in It’s Not Over, 29 states have no statewide ban on discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in public accommodations, housing, employment, credit, or lending. Some states have actual pro-discrimination laws on their books. Signorile lists a just handful examples of discrimination and violence from the torrent of similar incidents in just the past few years – discrimination that is promoted and violence that is tacitly encouraged by one of our political parties. (Dan Savage's take is spot on, too.)

One of our political parties nominated a candidate who has said he doesn’t want his wife working, because she should be making dinner. But this is minor compared to the broader attitude of this party, which – again, let’s be totally honest – wants women to serve men, and doesn’t want women to control their either their own bodies or their own lives.

Of course, I get it. I’m a relatively well-off straight white male. It is easy for me to want to “vote my conscience.” I don’t have to worry about being harassed, discriminated against, or even murdered because of the color of my skin or my sexual orientation. Plenty of people are more concerned with the perceived purity of their vote than the actual lives of their fellow citizens. These people helped put George W Bush in the White House, leading to Alito and Roberts on the Supreme Court, killing over a half million people, destabilizing the middle east and displacing countless refugees, and ending our long national nightmare of peace and prosperity.

History is clear: we need to look beyond our ego and realize the consequences of our vote and our words. The other side doesn’t care about purity or conscience; they care about power and control. Given the real world stakes for real people, it is unconscionable to vote for the “perfect” rather than the possible.

Of course, the Democratic Party in the US is far from perfect. There are frustrating and foolish Democrats. But an election can’t be about personality or popularity. This has to be about policies.

And let’s be honest. The modern Republicans are not some theoretical “greater of two evils” (1, 2). Their actual stated policies and goals show they are institutional evil. And if we are not doing everything in our power to defeat them, then we, too, are de facto evil.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Leah's Guineas

Our friend Lea Young send us these pictures of some of her beautiful Guinea rescues.
Thanks, Lea!




Sunday, July 24, 2016

To Reach New People and Help Animals, Consider Real-World Consequences

Many activists appear to love internecine debates about language. Fights over the word “vegan” seem particularly addictive. Nearly every vegan has an opinion regarding the definition and use of this word, but the fundamental goals of those individuals often differ. Given the disparity of underlying motivations, it is not surprising that there is much disagreement.

For many, “vegan” is an end in and of itself. The only thing that matters is using the word “vegan” and glorifying veganism.

On the other hand, many activists are concerned with the real-world consequences of the words they use. These activists don’t want to use a specific word because they like it or because it captures their particular worldview. Rather, consequentialist activists choose language that influences the actions of those who currently eat animals. In this case, words only matter in as much as they actually reduce suffering.

For the group that is primarily concerned about consequences, there are a number of studies to influence optimal messaging. For example, there is much to learn from Faunalytics’ large study of former vegetarians and vegans – which showed that more than 4 out of every 5 people who go veg eventually revert back to eating animals. A key strategic take-away from this survey is that people who change rapidly are less likely to maintain that change; those who take incremental steps are more likely to maintain that change.

Another key lesson is that former vegetarians point to their inability to live up to the demands for “purity” from the certain portions of the veg community. The angry, judgmental attitude associated with the vegan community has driven away even highly-motivated, dedicated individuals, as we can see in this article.

Marketing research done in 2015 at the Eller Business School of the University of Arizona also provides a number of insights. Each of the four investigative teams of MBA students found that the general public views “veganism” as impossible, and “vegans” as annoying (not to put too fine a point on the findings). The restaurant and grocery store research group found that non-vegetarians are less likely to order a dish or buy a product if it is labeled “vegan,” compared to if the same product has a non-veg label (e.g., “vegan burger” vs “black-bean burger”).

We also have a number of recent data points, as new companies enter the marketplace and existing companies move into this space. What these firms have in common is a desire to reach new, non-veg individuals, rather than appeal to current vegans (a market so small it is within the margin of error). For these companies, non-vegetarians are their path to profits and success. The more companies succeed in having new people buy their products, the fewer animals will suffer and die.

This article discusses the trend, and their lead graphic – a sign at Target (above) – shows the conclusion reached by profit-motivated companies seeking to reach non-veg audiences. Their marketing research shows that “plant-based” is the phrase that will reach new people.

Forbes magazine has a new article that explicitly addresses the debate about language. Of course, there are still those who are primarily and personally concerned with trying to alter perception of the word “vegan.” But the major up-and-coming companies – such as Hampton Creek Foods and Beyond Meat, which are seeking to reach new people right now, as well as the existing multinationals moving into this space – have all clearly chosen “plant-based” as the way forward.

I understand, and have written about, how inviting and even intoxicating it is to worry about words and defend definitions. It feels great to be part of an elite club, and ego is one of the most powerful drives, spawning the most amazing rationalizations. But if we care more about animals than ideology, and if we want to have the biggest possible real-world impact, we need to set aside our ego and use the most inclusive and persuasive language possible. 

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Updated ACE Charts

Thanks to our friends at Animal Charity Evaluators for updating two of the three most important graphs out there.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Why Not Fish?

I'm often asked why I don't argue that advocates should focus on fish, given that the numbers of fish killed every year is even higher than chickens. I am, of course, heartened when people are concerned about numbers, as opposed to only working on things that they personally find most compelling.

There are a number of factors that go into my thinking regarding how to advocate, and why not to focus on fish with our first-line advocacy. Here are some of the factors, in abbreviated form (feel free to contact me for more details):

  1. Some people focus entirely on numbers, and not the reality behind the numbers. But I don't care about numbers, I care about suffering.
  2. Most "fish" that are killed (just based on numbers) aren't sentient / don't suffer (clams, oysters, shrimp).
  3. Most vertebrate fish that are killed are wild fish who would have suffered greatly in their "natural" death if they hadn't been caught. So catching a wild fish doesn't clearly increase the suffering in the world.
  4. Only farmed vertebrate fish (e.g., catfish) might be adding suffering to the world by choices to eat them.

Chart by Ben Davidow.

  5. Our most likely audience for dietary change (youngish women) don't eat much fish. Ellen says she never saw her high school or college friends eating fish. Always chickens. The numbers and the suffering are only two of the three factors we must consider; tractability is also key.

But when advocates start saying things like "500 fish/ year," we greatly distract from where our efforts can actually have the biggest impact on actually reducing suffering.

And, of course, every time we add on something else to our ask, we undermine the point of having a single, do-able, impactful first-step act. As always, my approach isn't based on what is "right" or "consistent" or "popular." I try to shape my advocacy such that it can have the biggest possible impact in the real world.