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There’s been buzz within the animal rights community for some time regarding a work in progress called The Ghosts in Our Machine by Canadian filmmaker Liz Marshall. This will be a feature-length documentary, but it will also be an online immersive narrative experience, says Liz, a director who combines cinematic storytelling with social and environmental justice issues. (Her previous film, Water on the Table, documented the quest to have water declared a human right.) The Ghosts in Our Machine not only explores the hidden world of factory farming, but it introduces viewers to individual animals, focusing on their sentience, their beauty, and their pain. These animals are the ghosts in our machine. Liz is going full blast and is about halfway through with the project, but she took some time to give us a glimpse into Ghosts.
Your work has explored a number of social justice issues, from sweatshop labor in Mexico and Bangladesh and global water rights to corporate malfeasance and the rights of girls in developing countries. What brought animal exploitation to your attention?
Two people and one animal: My life partner Lorena Elke, a longtime vegan and a highly principled activist. Her outlook has impacted me, and she has made me rethink our relationship to animals. Jo-Anne McArthur’s photographs of animals pose the moral questions I think most people grapple with. Her images have inspired the approach I am taking with the film. My late dog Troy Celina Marshall (RIP: 1994-2011) was a deep friend who taught me many essential truths. She lives on in my heart.
I have always been sensitive to injustice and the suffering around us, which is why I became vegetarian in 1988 and vegan during the making of The Ghosts in Our Machine, and which is why I am drawn to exploring social issues as a filmmaker. I have primarily focused on human rights and more recently on the environment. The animal rights’ ethos is still relatively new to me. It’s a journey of discovery into what is a complex social issue — one that needs to be considered morally significant.
It’s great to hear that Jo-Anne McArthur has a central role in Ghosts. Why did you choose to tell this story through her lens?
I started with Jo’s photographs as an entry point and visual compass to anchor the film. As I zoomed out, I saw the person and realized that she would make a compelling human entry point to help tell a complicated story. As a filmmaker, I am drawn to character-driven narratives, and several individual animals are central in the film, but I also wanted a strong empathic human at the center, and that’s Jo. She is full of hope, empathy, courage, and she is a free spirit with a good sense of humor, too. She is also a woman on the precipice of breaking out into the mainstream as an important activist-photographer, and the film captures this arc as a symbolic backdrop.
In working on this film, have you encountered any animals who had a special impact on you?
Yes. In the summer of 2011 we were in development and we travelled to upstate New York to film the first story of the film: the rescue of Fanny and Sonny by Farm Sanctuary. Fanny and Sonny were “downed” factory farmed food animals destined to be sold to a rendering plant, but they now live happily at Farm Sanctuary and continue to be featured in the film. Fanny was a “spent dairy” cow and Sonny a one-day-old dying “veal” calf. Through this story, my eyes were opened to the realities of the dairy industry, and I became vegan. Cutting out dairy continues to make sense to me, and now that I have a distance from it, I can see just how collectively ignorant society is about the dairy industry. There is a myth that cows naturally produce milk for humans. I look forward to the extensive discussions and “a-ha” moments that are sparked for people.
You’ve described The Ghosts in Our Machine as a cross-platform documentary. What platforms will it incorporate?
The Ghosts in Our Machine project offers many interactive possibilities and a community building environment that is attracting a broad spectrum of animal lovers.
On June 5th we are excited to unveil a new magazine themed website: www.theghostsinourmachine.com. Join our Facebook page — it is an active and diverse space for sharing and for dialogue. Although we are just halfway through production, we have over 2000 fans from around the world.
Here are some selected examples of our online presence:
The Ghost Free Journey (GFJ) is a bimonthly online interactive blog that to date has taken place exclusively on our Facebook wall. It has been an educational, supportive and community building initiative, and now we are pleased to announce that in July of 2012 we will officially kick off the GFJ on our website, to give it more prominence and to give it a home!
A flash-based immersive story will be prominently featured on our website in 2013 created by the Webby award-winning interactive art directors The Goggles. It will provide a full-screen interactive experience that follows me and Jo-Anne McArthur on a journey of discovery through the questions and issues of animal rights. What excites me the most is that it will be a powerful vehicle to inspire our audience to go further with the subject matter.
People can also check out our Ghost Stories and Trailers on our Vimeo channel.
What do you hope to achieve with The Ghost in Our Machine?
A lasting awareness that as individual consumers we can make a difference for the Ghosts, each and every day.
When will people get to see it?
The feature-length documentary and the online immersive story will premiere together in early 2013. A double whammy!
How can people get involved in the discussion?
Please tell your friends about us.
Since 2006, aboveground animal activists in the United States have had to worry about a sweeping piece of legislation called the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA), which is intended to suppress speech and advocacy by criminalizing First Amendment-protected activities such as protests, boycotts, picketing and whistleblowing.
Today, animal rights activists who say their freedom of speech has been violated by AETA filed a lawsuit asking the court to strike down the statute as unconstitutional.
Sarahjane Blum, Lauren Gazzola, J Johnson, Lana Lehr and Ryan Shapiro, all of whom have long histories of participation in peaceful protests and animal rights advocacy, say that fear of prosecution as “terrorists” has led them to limit or even cease their lawful advocacy.
“I spent years uncovering conditions on foie gras farms and educating the public about the way ducks and geese are abused,” says lead plaintiff Sarahjane Blum, who co-founded the site www.GourmetCruelty.com with Ryan Shapiro. The two openly rescued animals and created a documentary exposing the horrors of foie gras farms. “Today, due to the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act’s unconstitutional assault on free speech, I am afraid to even publicly screen the documentary we produced.”
“As I have done in the past, I would like to document conditions on factory farms and educate the public about this animal cruelty, so that individuals can make informed decisions about whether they want to continue paying people to abuse animals on their behalf,” says Ryan, now a doctoral candidate at MIT. “The Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act prevents me from educating the public about what goes on behind the closed doors of factory farms. Affecting the profits of an animal enterprise, even by exposing animal abuse on factory farms, or by encouraging people to become vegan, is now prosecutable as a terrorist offense under the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act.”
The Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act was pushed through Congress by well-funded industry groups that profit from animal exploitation, including the Animal Enterprise Protection Coalition, the American Legislative Exchange Council and the deceptively-named Center for Consumer Freedom, with bipartisan support from legislators like Senator Dianne Feinstein and Representative James Sensenbrenner. The new law replaced its predecessor, the Animal Enterprise Protection Act (AEPA), which had become law in 1992. Proponents of the AETA argued that the AEPA did had not provide a sufficient deterrent, and that “animal rights extremists” were using new tactics such as making threats and targeting anyone affiliated with animal enterprises and called for an expansion of the federal law to address such acts. Yet in reality, the language of the AETA covers many First Amendment activities, such as picketing, boycotts and undercover investigations, if they “interfere” with an animal enterprise by causing a loss of profits. So in effect, the AETA silences the peaceful and lawful protest activities of animal and environmental advocates.
Specifically, the AETA creates the terrorist offense of traveling in interstate or foreign commerce, or using the mail or any other facility of interstate commerce, “for the purpose of damaging or interfering with the operations of an animal enterprise,” when in connection with such purpose, an individual (A) intentionally damages or causes the loss of any real or personal property used by an animal enterprise, or by a person or entity with a connection to an animal enterprise; (B) intentionally places a person in reasonable fear of death or serious bodily injury through a course of conduct involving threats, vandalism, property damage, criminal trespass, harassment or intimidation; or (C) conspires to do so. (Investigative journalist Will Potter has an excellent analysis of the law on his site.)
The first use of the AETA to prosecute activists came in 2009, when four people in San Jose, Calif., were accused of chanting, making leaflets and writing with chalk on the sidewalk in front of a biomedical researcher’s house, as well as using the Internet to research the company whose actions they planned to protest. Under the AETA, they were charged with acts of animal enterprise terrorism. Last year, the court dismissed the indictment.
“Some of my clients want to engage in simple public protests — perhaps in front of a fur store — to change public opinion about fur,” says staff attorney Rachel Meeropol of the Center for Constitutional Rights, which is representing the five activists in today’s lawsuit. “But they feel restricted from engaging in that clearly lawful activity because under the plain language of the law, if that protest is successful in convincing consumers not to shop at that fur store, they could be charged as terrorists.”
Co-plaintiff Lana Lehr, who founded the advocacy group RabbitWise, says the AETA has clearly put a chill on lawful, peaceful protests about the maltreatment of animals. “It has done this by making it legal to charge a lawful protestor with a felony, a fine and possible jail time if an animal enterprise decides that the activities of the protester caused a loss in their profits.” The law, she argues, “is too broad: An ‘animal enterprise’ can include any company that sells an animal product, a 7-Eleven that sells beef jerky, for example. Also, AETA does not spell out exactly what behaviors by the activist are unlawful so they can’t adjust their actions accordingly.”
“Though now a scholar behind a desk,” adds Ryan, “I just as easily could have found myself a supposed terrorist behind bars. Corporate power should not dictate the limits of free speech. It’s time to strike down the undemocratic and un-American Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act.”
Back in 2009, I wrote about the value of “one-click activism”; that is, using the Internet to participate in positive changes for animals. Since then there have been a number of headline-grabbing stories that involve activists using the Internet, from the more than 31,000 Change.org community members who helped convince the Food Network to stop featuring sharks as food to an online protest that led to the cancellation of a dog-meat festival in China last month. Now, I’m not suggesting that such armchair activism can ever replace more traditional avenues of campaigning. But as a tool for change, Web 2.0 activism is becoming undeniably important.
Change.org is one organization in an emerging field that is using the Internet to help people turn clicks into social change. To get an idea just how valuable online petitions have become, I asked two Change.org editors, Sarah Parsons and Stephanie Feldstein, to offer their insights. Sarah writes about food-related subjects on the site, and Stephanie is focused on animal issues. I began by asking Sarah how petitions on the site are created and who can create them. “Anybody, anywhere can create a petition,” she said. “We’ve had everyone from individuals to national non-profits. We try to promote petitions that have broad appeal to a fairly sizable audience. We do feature local campaigns as well, but they should be something that people in other parts of the country can relate to. We also want to make sure it’s something that is timely — that we feel can make an impact in the immediate future, rather than something that might take several years to accomplish.”
In addition to the recent success story about the Food Network, Change.org features a number of victories for animals, such as Urban Outfitters apologizing for selling real fur and a town in the UK halting a factory farm. But are all such victories directly linked to petitions, or are other factors involved? “It depends,” said Sarah. “Sometimes the online petition is the driving factor that creates the change; other times it’s just one piece of the puzzle. There could be an organization or individuals who are doing some on-the-ground organizing, who are holding protests or rallies or who are working with other groups to apply pressure. Sometimes the online petition is the main pressure point and other times it’s just one tool that is being used as part of a broader effort.”
I asked Stephanie how animal issues rank with Change.org’s members. “While we don’t have a ranking system among our causes,” she said, “animal issues are consistently among the most popular, both in terms of people coming to Change.org to sign campaigns and to start campaigns.” Okay, I responded, tell us a little about those campaigns. Which petitions for animals strike you as particularly meaningful? Stephanie said that one of the biggest victories they’ve had was working with the Ian Somerhalder Foundation (ISF) to push for reform to British Columbia’s animal cruelty laws. (Ian Somerhalder is anactor best known for his roles on Lost and The Vampire Diaries.) “When the story broke earlier this year that 100 sled dogs had been executed after a slow tourist season, animal activists around the world were furious,” explained Stephanie. “Ian wanted to make sure this kind of cruelty didn’t happen again, so ISF started a petition on Change.org, which laid out an ambitious list of improvements to British Columbia’s laws. More than 60,000 Change.org members joined the campaign. When the Sled Dog Task Force — which had been appointed in the wake of the public outcry about the 100 slaughtered sled dogs — submitted its final report to the government, it cited ISF’s Change.org petition, and nearly every recommendation from the petition was adopted by the provincial government.” She is also proud that their petition in support of the California bill on the sale and possession of shark fins attracted more than 27,000 signatures. The governor signed the bill into law last week.
One of the most encouraging aspects of online petitions is that they don’t take a lot of signatures to become an agent of change. “We had one campaign targeting Citibank Singapore, which was offering an incentive for new members to get a discount at a restaurant that served shark fin soup,” said Sarah. “The petition had about 75 signatures in 24 hours, and that was enough to get them to pull that promotion. So it’s not necessarily the number of signatures; sometimes just bringing it to a company’s attention is enough to get them to move on something.” But, I wondered, when a company like Citibank makes a change, how do you know it’s because of the petition? “You have to look at what else is going on in the space. If there are other organizations working on the same issue then you can’t say it was only because of this petition. But in the Citibank case in particular, there was really only this online petition that was calling them out to stop running this promotion. And as soon as the petition started, they ended up pulling the offer. We’ve also had companies respond to our petitions, and sometimes we work with them. It’s not always an antagonistic relationship. Sometimes a company is very willing to work with you as long as you bring it to their attention.”
Sarah acknowledged that a lot of activists consider social media activism to be a waste of time. “Certainly there’s this criticism that just signing an online petition is slacktivism, and that criticism will probably always exist,” she said. “But I think what our platform shows is that online petitions can be very powerful, and as we move into an increasingly technological age, communications via the Internet is really the wave of the future. It’s not slacktivism; it’s just modern.”
Sarah ended our conversation with this advice: “Don’t ever feel there’s nothing you can do. If you see a problem in your community or the country at large, there is a way for one person to make an impact. There’s no issue that’s too big or too small. It doesn’t cost any money. All you need is an Internet connection.”
Now here’s a great way to begin the new year. Beginning January 1, 2009, online auction site eBay has banned ivory products on its site. Animal activists around the world have long condemned eBay for acting as a major black market source for forbidden elephant tusks. The International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) recently discovered that approximately two-thirds of the worldwide online trade in protected wildlife takes place on eBay, a major online auction and shopping Web site.
IFAW said that poachers take the lives of more than 20,000 elephants in Africa and Asia each year to meet the high demand for ivory products. The sale of elephant ivory has been prohibited since 1989, though there are certain exceptions to the rule.
In a statement, Jack Christin, senior regulatory counsel for eBay said, “Due to the unique nature of eBay’s global online marketplace and the complexity surrounding the sale of ivory, we decided to ban the sale of ivory on eBay. We appreciate the support from the IFAW in assisting us and we look forward to continuing to work with them on the implementation of the global ban.
“Like the IFAW, ultimately we feel this is the best way to protect the endangered and protected species from which a significant portion of ivory products are derived.”
The ban will also cover antique jewelry created before the international trade ban came into effect in 1989. Only pianos with ivory keys and wood furniture with small amounts of ivory inlay made before 1900 will be allowed to be sold.
An investigation by IFAW revealed that over a period of six weeks, more than 7,000 items of ivory were being sold online, with 63 percent of the items sold through eBay. The US had a 70 percent market share — 10 times that of the UK, the next largest market. In the US, the transactions had an advertised value of $3.8 million (£2.6 million), and sales of about $460,000 on eBay provided the site with commission of at least $20,000.
“Internet dealers need to take responsibility for their impact on endangered species by enacting and enforcing a ban on all online wildlife trade,” said Robbie Marsland, director of IFAW UK.
Please take a moment to thank eBay for making the compassionate choice.
Four members of the Cambridge-based (UK) group Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty (SHAC) were convicted Tuesday of blackmail for running a campaign against companies and individuals with links to Huntingdon Life Sciences.
Gerrah Selby, 20, Daniel Wadham, 21, Gavin Medd-Hall, 45, and Heather Nicholson, 41, were convicted over the six-year campaign, which prosecutors say was designed to shut down the animal research laboratory based in Cambridge.
Four other activists had also been involved: Gregg Avery, 45, his wife, Natasha Avery, and Daniel Amos, 22, had earlier pleaded guilty to the same charge. Trevor Holmes, 51, was acquitted.
The activists were accused of targeting employees of Huntingdon Life Sciences, Europe’s largest contract medical testing center, with threats of violence, vandalism of homes and businesses, letter bombs and firebombs between 2001 and 2007. A jury at the Winchester Crown Court took more than 33 hours to convict the four, who had pleaded not guilty.
“The sole aim of SHAC was to close down the business of Huntingdon Life Sciences in Cambridgeshire because they use animals in the testing of pharmaceutical products,” said Alastair Nisbet, a senior prosecutor.
Steven Bird, a lawyer for the defendants, said they were very disappointed at the outcome. “We will consider any grounds for appeal in the next couple of weeks and advise our clients accordingly,” he said.
The four will be sentenced on January 19. They face up to 14 years in prison.
Update: Sentences handed down.
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” said Martin Luther King, Jr. So it’s a positive sign whenever animal advocates begin looking beyond the immediate tasks at hand and target a wider range of oppression.
Jenna Calabrese, Miranda Robbins, Steven Roggenbuck and Victor Tsou — all former leafleters with Vegan Outreach — are doing just that with the formation of a new community of vegan activists called Living Opposed to Violence and Exploitation (L.O.V.E.). They are quick to point out this is neither an animal welfare group nor an animal rights group, but something new: an anti-oppression collective that opposes all the “-isms”: ableism, ageism, classism, heterosexism, racism, sexism, speciesism, etc.
L.O.V.E. opposes animal exploitation, not because the animals are suffering or based on any theory of rights, but because it is wrong to use any being without their free consent; therefore, L.O.V.E. seeks the liberation of human and non-human animals alike. Part of their principle is to run L.O.V.E. completely with volunteers and an operating budget of $0.
I asked Jenna to give me more details about this new endeavor.
What inspired you to create this community?
A really potent combination of being inspired by individual essays and articles we had been reading — Unpacking the Knapsack, The Vegan Ideal, Vegans of Color — and being disappointed by the actions and attitudes of many of the mainstream animal advocacy organizations led us to create a community where veganism was viewed as a response to speciesism and all forms of oppression. Many of us are human rights activists in addition to being vegan and animal rights activists, and it’s surprising and sad how rarely it is that those communities cross paths or work together, when all forms of oppression clearly stem from the same system of power and hierarchy that keeps all of these groups marginalized. We wanted L.O.V.E. to serve as a resource for writings on the topic, a guide to people looking to expand or enhance their vegan activism and a safe haven for people who agree with these ideas and want to connect with others like them.
So L.O.V.E. is not comprised of any groups?
Right now, L.O.V.E. is a collective of individuals, not groups. We had been pretty disenchanted with a majority of the animal advocacy organizations currently in operation, and we really wanted L.O.V.E. to be something different. There are other organizations which share in L.O.V.E.’s values, though, and if they wanted to be a part of the collective, they would be welcome to join. Anyone — individual or group — can do so by visiting http://www.loveallbeings.org and signing up for the website and mailing list. We are happy to have you on board.
How does L.O.V.E. differ from other organizations?
Until now, animal advocacy organizations have mostly fallen into one of two categories: animal welfare and animal rights. Animal welfare groups are concerned with the treatment of animals, often based on the idea of reducing suffering, and do not challenge the notion that animals exist for human use. Animal rights groups challenge the use of animals, using a technical idea of “rights.” This is made more confusing because “animal rights” has become a general term to mean any work in animal advocacy.
We have found both approaches — animal welfare and animal rights — lacking. Animal welfare groups understandably try to better the lives of oppressed animals, but do so with an understanding and approach that does not challenge or weaken the system that causes the animals to suffer in the first place. By working on the effects rather than the cause, animal welfare groups are caught in an endless cycle of campaigning against one abuse, celebrating a victory, then campaigning against another abuse. So long as the system of exploitation exists, the abuses will never end and old abuses will be replaced with new ones.
Animal rights groups, on the other hand, do not bring an understanding of power and privilege to the situation and therefore may inadvertently perpetuate the oppression of others. For example, some animal rights groups champion the rights of only certain animals, expanding the membership of privilege, leaving large classes of animals those groups deemed less important in the lower class subject to our exploitation.
These might seem like nit-picky, abstract points, but they’re not. In practical terms, the animal welfare approach has led to a near disappearance of the word “vegan” from public education efforts. Worse, we have seen the largest animal welfare group in the country promoting the consumption of cage-free eggs to their members in a fundraising letter. For a flavor of the problems of the animal rights approach, please see Animal Rights and the Humane Treatment Principle.
How are you using the Internet to manage L.O.V.E.?
L.O.V.E. primarily exists at the webspace at http://www.loveallbeings.org — our members live in wildly different geographical locations and cannot practically work together anywhere but on the Internet. We are hoping to encourage the growth of local activist communities by connecting people through the L.O.V.E. website. There is an activist mailing list, called COMMUNITY, that will allow people to discuss their experiences and events, as well as a blog on which people can discuss current events, articles and news and questions they may have about veganism and anti-oppression activism — which, if you don’t have anyone in ”real life” with whom you can discuss these things, could turn out to be a very useful tool. We’re also launching a Vegan Buddies Project to help connect vegans with other vegans in their areas. They can hopefully strengthen one another’s commitment to a vegan life while engaging in local activism to bring about even more change in the world.
Erik Marcus is a tireless campaigner who works on efforts related to animal protection and promoting veganism. In addition to publishing Vegan.com, which features his daily blog, Erik has authored three books: Meat Market: Animals, Ethics and Money, Vegan: The New Ethics of Eating and The Ultimate Vegan Guide: Compassionate Living Without Sacrifice, which he just published this month. He took some time from his hard work to talk about his activism, his writing endeavors and the question all activists should ask themselves.
Your latest book, The Ultimate Vegan Guide: Compassionate Living Without Sacrifice, is hot off the presses. Please tell me what this new book covers.
I think when you first consider becoming vegan, it’s immensely helpful to get advice from somebody who has been doing it for a long time. So in this book, I strived to cover everything that is important to new vegans. I’ve written chapters on food shopping, cooking, nutrition, travel, relationships and so forth.
Anybody can write about these things, so I kept asking myself, “Am I presenting this material as helpfully as possible?” My preoccupation with being genuinely helpful led me to offer up a ton of information I haven’t encountered elsewhere. For instance, there are plenty of places a vegan can buy food, so I’ve got a chapter about supermarkets, another about natural food stores, another about farmer’s markets, and still another about shopping online.
Wherever I can in this book, I try to provide simple advice that unlocks a great deal of value. For instance, when talking about food, I introduce the idea of basing your diet on five core foods: smoothies, sandwiches, salads, stir-fries and grilled veggies. These foods are all super healthful, they are quick and easy to make, and they can all be prepared in a multitude of ways so you can eat them all the time without getting bored.
My intention in writing this book was to give a non-vegan every piece of information required to allow that person to easily become vegan tomorrow, without fear or sacrifice. From the responses I’ve received from the book’s first readers, it appears I’ve accomplished that goal.
How does your new book differ from Meat Market and Vegan: The New Ethics of Eating?
Both of those books required me to spend months and months in an agriculture library. The Ultimate Vegan Guide, by contrast, is my attempt to distill my twenty years of vegan living into a short and super-readable book. I think this subject gave me room to be much more relaxed and entertaining with my writing.
You made Vegan: The New Ethics of Eating available as a free download from Vegan.com. Why did you decide to do that?
I guess it was sort of an experiment. I wanted to see how many people would take advantage of reading it if I made the book free. The book ended up being downloaded tens of thousands of times, and I’ve had numerous people approach me to say they went vegan as a result of downloading the book. I should mention the free download went away when I re-launched Vegan.com last spring, but I’ll bring it back at some point when I find some time.
Most people know you as an author, blogger, podcaster and public speaker, but you’re engaged in other models of activism. What’s your favorite form of animal activism?
Well, Vegan.com and my writing sucks up nearly all my time. But I still manage pass out Vegan Outreach literature at my local colleges at least a few times a semester. This is something anyone can do, and I urge people who are unfamiliar with the effectiveness of leafleting to read Matt Ball’s wonderful essay “A Meaningful Life.”
One of your points in Meat Market is the “commodity-cruelty argument.” Could you explain what this is?
I devoted Chapter 2 of Meat Market to this argument, and it so happens that Chapter 2 of The Ultimate Vegan Guide reiterates this argument in a more concise format. Basically, this argument introduces the ethical consequences of what happens when meat, milk and eggs are produced under a commodity system. See, the name of the game with commodities is that only the lowest-cost producers survive. So, when animal-based foods become commodities, what happens is that producers are forced to embrace every possible cost-cutting measure, no matter how cruel it is to the animals involved.
Just by understanding this one simple concept, you’ve gained a window through which you can witness and understand the deeply rooted cruelties that exist within agribusiness.
Speaking of ag cruelties, you recently scored a victory for animals at your alma mater, UC Santa Cruz: they’re going to start making cage-free eggs available. Can you walk us through what you did to make that happen ― and how others can do the same at their college?
After receiving guidance from Josh Balk of HSUS, I used the classic Henry Spira approach of opening a respectful dialog with UCSC’s director of dining services. When that communication didn’t bear fruit, I got the attention of the Chancellor’s office. Soon after that, I was able to get some media coverage of the issue ― and within weeks of that coverage appearing the University started offering cage-free eggs. It was no big deal; anyone can do this sort of thing. But given the number of battery eggs served on campus, the simple efforts I made are going to eliminate a great deal of cruelty.
I know this victory is just the beginning; what’s next for you in working with the campus?
Well, now that Prop 2 has passed, UCSC doesn’t have any excuse to continue serving battery cage eggs. So I’m now back in touch with the Chancellor’s Office to see how quickly they can get rid of all battery cage eggs at the University. I’ve made contact with other activists on campus and, if the University doesn’t take speedy action to get rid of battery eggs, we’re going to launch a campaign that will expose the university’s ties to animal cruelty. But I doubt such a campaign will be necessary: my intuition is that the Chancellor’s Office and Dining Services staff are outstanding people who will want to quickly cut the university’s ties to battery cage egg farms. It’s the right thing to do.
You’re considered one of the leaders in the vegan movement. Who are the people that inspired you?
I’m not a leader; I’m just a guy with a website who has written a few books. Wayne Pacelle, Paul Shapiro, Philip Lymbery, Josh Balk, Mahi Klosterhalfen, Jack Norris and Matt Ball: those are some of the movement’s leaders.
I’ve been very fortunate to make friends with some incredibly effective people in the movement, and these people have played a big role in shaping the kind of activism I do. I got to know Henry Spira in the early 1990s, and my contact with him led me to the sort of work I do today. For me, it’s all about pragmatism: getting in tune with the public and figuring out what steps they’re ready to take right now. If you’re ready to go vegan, then great, I’ll give you the encouragement and the information you need. If you aren’t ready to stop eating animal products, then I’ll encourage you to eat fewer animal products and to shift your purchases away from factory farms.
Outreach is all about listening to people, and helping them to take whatever next step they’re ready for. It’s not about deciding what step would make that person a moral human being in your eyes, and expecting that person to jump through the hoop you’ve constructed. That’s the mindset of an asshole, and it’s at the root of the angry vegan stereotype.
It seems you work non-stop on behalf of animals, and I know you’ve seen some of the cruelest abuses agribusiness subjects animals to. What do you do to keep from burning out?
It’s true that this work can mess with your head. After David Foster Wallace hanged himself this past autumn, I found myself emotionally unable to write for about a week. At some point, you need to take care of yourself. After all the exposure I’ve had to animal cruelty, I’ve stopped watching new cruelty videos when they come out. I’ve seen everything I need to see, and it’s important I preserve my emotional health.
But the real way to avoid burnout is to regularly engage in tasks that you know will make a big difference. I’m certain that anyone who cares, and who works steadily, can keep more than a million animals out of a slaughterhouse. I talk about how to accomplish this in the final chapter of my Ultimate Vegan Guide. Since I know I’m being effective, there’s no room in my belief system to permit burnout.
We’re going to annihilate factory farming in our generation, while putting veganism solidly into the mainstream, and I’m delighted to be one of the people working to make this happen.
What’s next for you? Any other books you’ll be working on?
I think I’ve now finished plugging up what I perceived as the main gaps in the movement’s literature. I don’t know if I’ll ever write another book — at this point there’s nothing else in the vegan/animal rights world that I’d be interested in writing about. Since my book-writing career has likely come to an end, my life at the moment is at a crossroads; my main goal moving forward is to identify new efforts that make me increasingly effective for animals. I’m now asking myself the same question I hope every reader of this interview regularly asks themselves: What can I do that will impact as many farmed animals as possible?