Tuesday, October 11, 2016

What Have We Learned?

A decade ago, Peter Singer invited me to be on a panel at Princeton with Jonathan Haidt. Professor Haidt gave the first presentation entitled, “Why Good Intentions Don’t Lead to Good Actions,” where he noted that whenever he was around Peter, he would decide to stop eating animals. But after he was home and into the routines of his life, he’d fall back into his old ways.

In my presentation, “Causing Good Actions Anyway,” I opened with why we should care (showing a brief clip of some of the cruelty farm animal face). Then I talked about how food technology will continue to advance such that people will eat whatever they want, but the products will be cruelty-free.

From 2006

I noted, “Compare a Boca burger today to one from 20 years ago, and just imagine how good a  veggie burger will be 20 years from now.”

From 2006

This very insightful new Vox article – “Ethical arguments won't end factory farming. Technology might.” – makes the same case Jonathan and I did in 2006. I would like to amplify several points here.

In the past, I’ve made statements similar to the Vox title, and I’ve always received pushback along the lines of “There is so much interest in veganism! It is growing by leaps and bounds – we have to keep pushing for [my personal view of ethical] veganism!”

But for most of the time since I stopped eating animals in the 80s, there has been no true, bottom-line evidence of the growth of veganism or even vegetarianism. In fact, the percentage of people who don’t eat animals is more-or-less unchanged, even declining from 2012 to 2015 (but always within the margin of error).



There were a few years when the number of animals killed for food in the US went down, but that trend has reversed and per capita meat consumption is at an all-time high.

Yet I’m encouraged by two things. First is the current emphasis on and embrace of new food technologies.


I actually don’t think we need huge breakthroughs in tech to produce food that everyone will eat. I think the best plant-based foods out there now are good enough to satisfy most people most of the time. We can make plant-based food as satisfying and mouth-watering as what you would see on a TV commercial, but we often choose to go for hyper-healthy gourmet instead.

Will never be seen on a TV commercial.

That's more like it!

Unfortunately, actually appealing products aren’t all of equal quality, aren’t convenient, and aren’t quite cost competitive.

From 2006

(I think convenience is the biggest stumbling block.


If people could get a well-prepared Beyond Burger or something made with Tofuky strips as easily as anything else, many more people would have more meat-free meals.)

Secondly, many in the animal advocacy movement have grown beyond the dogma: “I have to stay true to myself and only advocate exactly what I want.” More and more advocates recognize the futility (at best) of an “all-or-nothing” approach, and now take a more realistic tact. We know there are many, many people like Dr. Haidt and Sean Illing (the interviewer in the Vox piece referenced above) – intelligent and thoughtful individuals who just won’t give up (animal) meat. Vox founder Ezra Klein makes the comparison to the Founding Fathers (minus Adams and Hamilton) who bemoaned the horrors of slavery, all while adding to their slave holdings.

Understanding this has led more and more groups and advocates to adopt incremental tactics and pursue realistic goals to reduce suffering. From abolishing cages to Meatless Mondays to slow-growth birds, more efforts are being put into actions that don’t (immediately) increase the number of vegans, but do actually impact many animals, and are able to reach new people.


Not surprisingly, I think One Step for Animals is the epitome of this pragmatic, harm-reduction trend in advocacy, as discussed here. (Last month alone, this all-volunteer organization reached well over a million people with a next-to-nothing budget.)

We know the people who don’t think they can go veg would be willing (and are often eager) to make some change for the “better.” But the message that’s usually promoted – health, environment, animals – is almost always interpreted to apply first and primarily to mammals, leading to a lot more birds suffering. With One Step, the call for change will “do no harm,” and will prompt the most impactful realistic step anyone can take, no matter how much they love meat.


Postscript: At the meal after the Princeton talk, we were served a disgusting slab of undercooked tofu. It was as though the chef sought to mock my idea that plant-based foods could be tasty! Yet a week later, I received an email from Jonathan Haidt, saying that after my talk, he and his wife were really going to stop eating animals. This time, they really meant it!  :-)



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