It will serve the animal protection movement well if the so-called vegan community concedes that our lifestyle is not cruelty-free. It may also serve the cause of promoting freedom for animals well if we avoid a debate over who causes more harm to animals, human health, and the environment and shift the focus to inspiring people to show more compassion for animals which in turn achieves desired outcomes. We need to pit ourselves against our friends, family, and neighbors less, eliminate their reasons to feel defensive and resist change, and work smarter to find common ground to benefit animals. The psychology of persuasion is an art and we should heed its lessons.
Our Cruelty Footprint
People who don’t eat animals still bear responsibility for cruelty to animals. Examples abound. We have a carbon footprint that contributes to greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change. Our wood furniture came from a tree that was cut down and disrupted animals’ habitats. The gasoline we use came from an oil company that caused harm to marine and wildlife. The plastic we use often winds up in our waterways polluting our marine ecosystem. Sugar we eat wreaks havoc on Everglades wildlife. Millions of animals such as mice and rabbits are killed every year when land is prepared for crops like wheat, soybeans, and corn. The lives of those small animals are no less valuable than the cow, pig, chicken, or turkey. While we can logically argue that the life of an animal on a factory farm involves confinement and a longer period of suffering before death and that factory farming contributes to even more killing of animals to grow crops to feed the animals people eat, it is unlikely an argument that will make inroads with naysayers.
Meat substitutes are also highly processed which requires considerable land and energy to produce. Many beers and wines contain dried fish bladder and gelatin made from pig and cow hooves, candy contains cochineal extract made from crushed beetles, and many refined sugars contain bone char. I’m personally responsible for approximately 18 tons of CO2 per year. While less than the 27 tons of CO2 emitted by the average American per year, it is still much higher than the worldwide average of 5.5 tons of CO2 per year.
Instead of using an inaccurate term such as cruelty-free to describe our lifestyle, we should humbly advocate for the freedom of all animals and the significant reduction of confinement, abuse, and killing in as many ways as possible. The idea that we live a perfectly kind life because we don’t eat animals or buy products tested on them or pay to see them exploited is flawed, turns people off from the movement because they don’t believe they can live up to these standards, and doesn’t hold up against scrutiny. We support many industries that cause harm to our health, environment, and animals, including our cell phone, car, cable, airplane, and electricity companies, to name a few.
The Importance of Imperfection
The good news is that we don’t need to be perfect to advocate for animals; only thoughtful in our actions, reflective in our thinking, and open to learning new information. This is yet another reason why it’s counterproductive to be so fanatical about a drop of fish oil, for example, winding up in our food. When we make such a hullabaloo about something minuscule in comparison to our overall negative impact, the lifestyle does not appear attractive to someone who may wish to try it. It seems like a nuisance. Most people don’t want to live a complicated life; however, given the choice to live a relaxed life while doing right in the world, many people will seize the opportunity. Consider the irony that you’re at a restaurant, return food with fish oil, and then pay someone $50 for your meal who then in turn uses your money to buy animal products.
By expressing outrage over a drop of fish oil in our food and returning the dish in the presence of people who consume animals, we paint an unflattering picture of our lifestyle. We will successfully save the drop of fish oil (or not because it will simply be discarded) but potentially fail at the opportunity to save thousands of animals by alienating others. Our conduct may make us feel good because we think we’re passing our own purity test but it’s not in the best interest of animals. If we instead inspire someone at the table to stop eating animals, we will save hundreds of animals per year and potentially thousands of drops of fish oil.
People who don’t eat animals have the best intentions but we do not serve our cause well if we elevate ourselves to a status that fails to represent reality. We need more humility, pragmatism, and grace and less grandstanding and amnesia about our lives prior to departing from cultural norms. For those who find transparent inconsistencies in our advocacy, we lose credibility. Think of how differently we might be received by the billions of people who eat animals if we presented our plea as follows:
We support freedom for all animals. We try to avoid causing harm to any and all animals but we are not perfect. We try to make decisions every day that spare animals from confinement, abuse, and death. Sometimes it’s easy — for example, not attending the circus, zoo, or a seaquarium, buying products that haven’t been tested on animals, not wearing fur, leather, or wool, and not ordering or making food made from animals or their byproducts such as steak, hamburgers, eggs, and cheese.
At the same time, we realize the wood we buy, the plastic we use, and even the vegetables we eat all contribute to some form of disruption of our ecosystem, suffering, and death. For us, it’s not about being perfect but about trying to make the world a more humane place by reducing our harmful impact. If you care about your health, animals, and our environment, perhaps you will try as well. We will not judge you for falling short because we all fall short of our goal but rather we will aim to provide you accurate information and inspire and support you as you learn the truth about the impact of the decisions we make.
The Psychology of a Word
Ask people the following questions and listen to their answers:
1. Do you care about animals?
2. Do you care about our environment?
3. Do you care about your health?
4. Do you want to be a vegan?
You will likely receive an affirmative answer to the first three questions and a negative response to the final question even though a positive response to the first three questions embodies the label in the final question. Why? Psychology. Word association. People don’t want to be labeled or cornered into a commitment. Set aside how you feel. Assuming others will feel or do as you do is faulty thinking. If you only eat plant-based food and live in the United States, your selfless actions for animals represent a small percentage of the population. To advocate effectively, you must think like those who don’t think like you. Focus on acts of kindness in your advocacy rather than a label that may be viewed as extreme or untenable. I don’t own any t-shirts with the word “vegan” on them. Instead, my shirts have a message that appeals to people’s desire to do right or to eat more healthful food. For example: “Animals are my friends. I don’t eat my friends.” Another shirt I wear reads: “Animals are here with us, not for us.” Some of my shirts are simple and straightforward: “Eat More Kale.” These are common sense, non-threatening, specific, and compassionate pleas that appeal to people’s most fundamental sense of decency and pique their curiosity.
I avoid using the word “vegan” because I believe it has a negative connotation with many people who view it as fanatical and too difficult. Dissenting opinions welcome. I respect people’s right to embrace the word, tattoo it on their body, and scream it from their rooftop. I understand the arguments in favor of it. I prefer to describe the way I live my life in a friendly way without any labels that may repel people. I don’t need to call myself a “vegan” to stop eating animals, to not wear leather, or to refuse to go to a zoo.
A Vegan World
I often hear people say that they want a “vegan world” and insist that veganism is an all or nothing proposition — either you’re on board or you’re not. I have even seen people debate the arrival time of the so-called vegan world, with predictions as soon as 2015. Unfortunately, many people who call themselves “vegans” live in places where there are high concentrations of “vegans” in comparison to other parts of the world. These good-hearted, dedicated, and optimistic people seem to be removed from the reality of the world’s eating habits and use and exploitation of animals for other purposes. They also seem to fail to understand that if veganism was an all or nothing proposition with no acceptance of incremental acts of mercy for animals (for example, people choosing to eat fewer animals and perhaps eventually graduating to vegetarianism), it would cost the lives of billions of animals.
There are more than 7 billion people in the world. Millions of those people take pleasure in causing animals pain. They don’t care about animals and it’s possible many never will. The idea that somehow billions of people will adopt “veganism” in a few years is unrealistic. Short of a catastrophic environmental disaster that necessitates changes in animal agriculture or a sustainability issue of some other magnitude, we are engaged in a decades long battle to inspire the masses to choose compassion over cruelty. Our goal should be to make the world more humane, not to make it perfect because the former goal is achievable and will engage more people in the process.
Although polls vary, approximately 1 million of more than 300 million Americans state they only eat plant-based food. The population of people who make thoughtful decisions that benefit animals is growing and we should take great pride and satisfaction in that fact knowing that it contributes to less suffering but we should also keep expectations realistic and avoid hyperbole if we expect to be taken seriously. I appreciate people who follow “Meatless Monday” or have expressed that they have reduced their consumption and exploitation of animals. Even though there is no label for them, I still praise their progress. They are part of a growing community of people who show a degree of concern about animals and whose actions reflect their interest in doing better.
Many people take absolute positions in their advocacy and voice enormous frustration if people don’t commit to full-fledged allegiance to the “vegan” lifestyle. These advocates miss the importance of the impact of gradual change and individual acts of kindness performed by people every day in a myriad of ways. When people tell me they gave up eating cheese, I embrace their decision. I don’t berate them for still eating cows because I understand it’s a beginning and given that the vast majority of people still eat and drink everything animal, they have now put themselves in the company of a small group of people relative to the world’s population who are not “vegan” but are thinking about decisions they’re making every day to show more compassion for animals, their health, and our environment. That’s a giant step forward that will likely lead to more realizations and progress. We should embrace every step that benefits animals rather than demonizing people who fail to attain a cruelty-free perfection that doesn’t exist. We can suggest that we cause less suffering but if we pretend we cause no suffering, the movement suffers. If the movement suffers, the animals suffer with it.