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?