Monday, December 24, 2012

Choosing for Maximum Impact

Second of two talks presented by Matt Ball at Their Lives, Our Voices Conference in 2008; first talk.

We’ve heard from many different advocates this weekend, and we’re all aware of the many, many different forms of animal exploitation that could use our limited time and money.

It is important to realize just how incredibly limited our resources really are. Vegan Outreach’s budget isn’t even a million dollars a year. It’s true that PETA’s is bigger, and HSUS’s is over a hundred million dollars. But compare this to the companies that exploit animals. In 2007, just two of these companies – Tyson and Cargill – had revenues of over 115 billion.

We must also recognize that our time is limited. I’ve heard many an activist say that they can’t turn their back on the circus coming to town, or skip a protest at a local lab, or stop volunteering at the animal shelter. Before founding Vegan Outreach, Jack Norris and I pursued many and various methods of advocacy – from letter writing campaigns to scores of protests, and everything in between, including civil disobedience. But every time we choose to do one thing, we are choosing not to do another. There is no way around it. We can’t do everything. We must – and do – choose.

Given all this, how can we make choices that maximize the amount of good we accomplish with our limited time and money?

The first and most important step is to set aside our personal biases and needs, and recognize what is fundamentally important – our first principle. Yesterday, I discussed at length how suffering is irreducibly bad, and eliminating suffering is fundamentally good. This is Vegan Outreach’s first principle, our bottom line and guide: eliminating as much suffering as possible. Vegan Outreach is dedicated to taking suffering seriously. Everything we do derives directly from that – we make our choices based on which option will lead to the least amount of suffering.

Why Vegan Outreach?

Based entirely on this first principle, we choose to focus on exposing the cruelties of factory farms and industrial slaughterhouses, while providing honest information about how to pursue a cruelty-free lifestyle. Let me repeat – our emphasis on ethical eating is derived from our first principle, not vice versa. No specific diet has any value in and of itself. Rather, the importance of promoting cruelty-free eating is that it allows us to have the maximum impact on the amount of suffering in the world. There are three reasons for this:

1. The Numbers The number of animals raised and killed for food each year in the United States alone vastly exceeds any other form of exploitation, involving numbers far greater than the total human population of the entire world. Ninety-nine out of every 100 animals killed in the United States each year are slaughtered to be eaten.

2. The Suffering Of course, if these billions of animals lived happy, healthy lives and had quick, painless deaths, then our concern for suffering would lead us elsewhere. But animals raised for food must endure unfathomable suffering.

Most advocacy tends to revolve around detailed stories of individuals, and the story of any individual chicken, pig, or veal calf clearly rivals any other case of cruelty. Indeed, perhaps the most difficult aspect of advocating on behalf of these animals is trying to describe the indescribable: the overcrowding and confinement, the stench, the racket, the extremes of heat and cold, the attacks and even cannibalism, the hunger and starvation, the illness, the broken bones, the failing organs…the near-constant horror of every day of their lives. Indeed, every year, hundreds of millions of farmed animals – many times more than the total number killed for fur, in shelters, and in laboratories combined – don’t even make it to slaughter. They actually suffer to death.

3. The Opportunity If there were nothing we could do about these animals’ suffering – if it all happened in a distant land beyond our influence – then, again, our focus would be different. But exposing factory farms and advocating ethical eating is the most readily accessible option we have for reducing suffering and making a better world! We don’t have to overthrow a government. We don’t have to forsake modern life. We don’t have to win an election or convince Congress of the validity of our argument.

Rather, every day, every single person makes decisions that affect the lives of these farmed animals. Inspiring someone to change leads to fewer animals suffering on factory farms. Convincing one person go to vegetarian spares thousands of animals from the vicious maws of modern agribusiness. Many major national campaigns spend huge amounts of time and money for less payoff. By choosing to promote cruelty-free living, every person we meet is a potential major victory.

What and Why?

For these reasons, Vegan Outreach works to change as many people’s diets as possible per dollar donated and hour worked. We believe the way to accomplish this is to present the optimal message to our target audience. This leads to two obvious questions: Who is our audience, and what is the message that will elicit the greatest change?

Of course, with infinite resources, we could reach out to everyone. Given our reality, though, the goal of maximum change leads Vegan Outreach to focus primarily on students (especially college-age) in North America, for three main reasons:

1. The Relative Willingness and Ability to Change Of course, not every student is willing to stop eating meat. But relative to the population as a whole, college students tend to be more open-minded – even rebellious against the status quo – and in a position where they aren’t as restricted by parents, tradition, habits, etc.

2. The Full Impact of Change Even if students and senior citizens were equally open to change, over the course of their lives, students can save more animals. Young people not only have more meals ahead of them, but also have more opportunities to influence others.

3. The Ability to Reach Large Numbers College students are typically easier to reach. For a relatively small investment of time, an activist can hand a copy of Even If You Like Meat or Compassionate Choices to hundreds of students who otherwise may have never viewed a full and compelling case for ethical eating.

Because we take suffering seriously, the message we choose to present to this audience is the cruelty to animals on factory farms and in industrial slaughterhouses. We have found this simple and straightforward message to have many benefits, including honesty and strength of motivation.

However, many new vegetarians think, “Even though I care about animals, other people won’t. People are selfish – I’ll appeal to their self-interest!” But look around – is the health argument working? For years we’ve known that being obese is an incredible threat to good health, yet every year, more and more people in the United States become more and more overweight! Is this really the message with the best chance to create real and lasting change for the animals?

Also, we don’t want to get people to just consider changing their diet. We want them to change, maintain that change, and advocate change. If someone gives up meat to improve their health, the next time they hear someone praise a different diet, that same person might switch and end up eating even more animals than before! So we should try to get people to choose compassion for reasons that are sustainable.

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. They are 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% consider the animals’ plight, than if everyone smiles politely and continues on to McDonald’s for a “healthy” chicken sandwich or salad.

Let me repeat: Trying to appeal to everyone hasn’t worked, and it won’t work. It is well past time to give up the fantasy that there is some perfect self-centered argument that will magically compel everyone to change.

Conversely, showing people what is hidden behind the walls of factory farms and slaughterhouses does work! We have found cruelty to animals to be the most compelling reason for people to change their diet – and maintain and promote that change – in the face of peer pressure, tradition, the latest fad, etc. In the mid 1990s, Vegan Outreach’s President Jack Norris leafleted colleges around the country; he found a great willingness among students to take and consider information about the realities of modern animal agribusiness, and the compassionate alternative. Since then, hundreds of other activists have found the same. We constantly receive feedback like, “I had no idea what went on! Thank you so much for opening my eyes!”

And yet, there are many, many more people to reach. The simplest way to get booklets to interested people is to stock displays in your area: libraries, music and bookstores, co-ops and natural food stores, coffeehouses, and sympathetic restaurants are possible venues.

Young adults, though, is where the animals get the biggest bang for the buck. Vegan Outreach’s Adopt a College program, where activists leaflet at local campuses, concerts, and other venues, serves to reach out methodically to our prime audience. Activists go directly to individuals – people who may never otherwise learn the realities of modern agribusiness and the compassionate alternative – and provide them with illustrated, detailed, and documented information. This is the first systematic plan for bringing about animal liberation by going directly to our most receptive audience. We know this works, and you can join with the others who are taking part in this powerful, effective activism. You don’t need to start a group, or publish a website, or organize anything – you just need to take suffering seriously and choose to commit your time, and we’ll provide all the materials and guidance you need.

Potential Pitfalls

When striving to be the best possible advocate, there are a number of pitfalls we need to keep in mind. I touched on one yesterday – the vegan stereotype – and want to cover a few more here.

We must always remember that people are looking for a reason to ignore us – no one sits around thinking, “Wow, I want to give up my favorite foods and be different from my friends and family!” Anyone who has been vegetarian for more than a few minutes knows the many roadblocks – habit, tradition, convenience, taste, familiarity, peer pressure, etc. – that keep people from opening their hearts and minds to the animals’ plight. Knowing this, we can’t give anyone any reasons to ignore the terrible and unnecessary suffering on factory farms and in slaughterhouses.

Furthermore, we need to make sure that people who do change are able to maintain that change. While leafleting colleges across the country, activists are often told, “I was veg for a while, but I didn’t feel healthy.…” Jack heard this so frequently that it sometimes seemed that he met more failed vegetarians than current vegetarians! Failed vegetarians tell everyone how awful they felt without meat, and how much better they feel as a meat eater again. Just one failed vegetarian can counter the efforts of many sincere advocates.

To do our best to prevent suffering, we must learn and present a complete, unbiased summary of the nutritional aspects of a meatless diet, including uncertainties and potential concerns. Vegan Outreach does this in our Guide, with a thorough article written by Jack, who is now a registered dietician. Providing this information not only leads people to trust that we are not just partisan propagandists, but also creates healthy spokespeople for the animals!

If we want to be as effective as we possibly can be for the animals,  it is absolutely essential that we stay focused on the animals. Remember: Our message is simple. We shouldn’t try to answer every tangential argument. Whatever is said cannot counter the fact that eating animals causes unnecessary suffering.

We must always stay focused on the animals. We are not the issue. Veganism is not an end in itself – it is only a tool for reducing suffering. Our purpose isn’t to “win an argument with a meat eater.” Our goal is to get people to open their hearts and minds to the animals’ plight.

Buying meat, eggs, and dairy causes unnecessary suffering. We can each choose not to cause this suffering.

Reason for Optimism Redux

I understand that focusing on preventing animals from being bred for factory farms isn’t a particularly exciting or inspiring prescription, especially compared to the pull of concrete campaigns, the plight of individual animals, or the immediacy of the latest tragedy. But if we take suffering seriously, we need to maximize our impact, rather than pursue the immediate and high profile.

I also know that this work can seem overwhelming or too slow, which is why I concluded yesterday’s talk with some surprising facts about how much great progress we have already made for the animals. I want to leave you with a summary of one possible future:

Our grassroots advocacy efforts are creating more vegetarians every day, leading to more vegetarian products arriving on the market every month. Having convenient vegetarian options is vital, as it makes it easier for new people to try and stick with a compassionate diet. As more people buy faux meats and other vegetarian products, competition will continue to increase the supply and varieties, improving quality and driving down prices. This cycle of increasing numbers of vegetarians and the increasing convenience of vegetarian eating creates a feedback loop that accelerates progress.

If we choose to focus our scarce resources on expanding this advocacy, the growth of vegetarianism will accelerate to a tipping point, where vegetarianism and opposition to factory farms becomes the “norm” among influential groups. Legislation, as it usually does, will continue to follow evolving public opinion, and we’ll see more of animal agriculture’s worst practices outlawed and abolished. Corporate practices will also continue to adjust to the demands from an increasingly aware market.

At the same time, powerful economic forces will kick in, because meat is ultimately inefficient. It is more economical to eat plant foods directly, rather than feeding plants to animals and then eating some of the animals’ flesh. Of course, people aren't going to substitute tofu for meat, but that’s not the choice they'll be making. Food science has already advanced such that the best vegetarian meats are already able to satisfy even hard-core carnivores. Deli slices from Tofurky, sausages from Field Roast, burgers from Gardein, Gimme Lean sausage and ground beef, Beyond Meat, Boca Chik’n – all of these dismiss the notion that giving up meat is necessarily a deprivation.

The faster the growth in people choosing vegetarian, the faster vegetarian products will improve in taste, become cheaper, and be found in more places. Our challenge now is to expand the vegetarian market by explaining to more meat eaters the reasons for choosing meatless meals, while exposing them to new – though similar – products. The more rapidly we do this, the sooner cruelty-free eating will be widespread.

Despite all the current horror and suffering, if we take the long view – and are willing to commit to the work that needs to be done – we should be optimistic. If we take suffering seriously and are committed to optimal advocacy, we can each create real, fundamental change. This change will not come by revolution, but through person-by-person outreach progressing hand-in-hand with advances in technology, leading slowly but inexorably towards a new norm that, to most people, will hardly seem different. But an unfathomable amount of suffering will be prevented.

It is up to us to make this happen. I know that this can seem like unrewarding work, and the scale can appear intimidating. I know that the easiest thing would be to walk out that door and continue on as before.

But we can be the leaders who fundamentally change society. We can be extraordinary! The choice is ours!

Please be a part of this today with a simple click  –  thanks!