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Last year, Matt Ball of Vegan Outreach gave a talk called “An Activist’s Life = A Meaningful Life” at the Their Lives, Our Voices conference in Minneapolis.* In his talk, Matt outlined some of the fundamental actions we can take on behalf of animals, emphasizing that by choosing to be part of something bigger than ourselves, anyone can have a more meaningful, rewarding life than by simply following the endless pursuit of more material possessions.

It’s a great message, and I was interested to see that author and activist Erik Marcus has embarked on a new online project called “An Activist’s Life.” As Erik explains in a recent post on Vegan.com, “I’m going to blog about my personal efforts for animals, and all the things in my life that I try to put in place to be as effective as I can be…. There is no ultimate form I expect this work to take. Just the feeling that if I can give you some insight into the way I’ve structured my life, and the things I do day after day, some people might either be inspired to take action, or be able to act more effectively for animals.”

Erik is creating this project as a tumblelog, which I just discovered is a short-form blog that may include mixed media, as opposed to the longer editorial posts we associate with traditional blogging. Erik writes: “One of the things I want to accomplish with this tumblelog is I want it to create more pathways for two-way and multi-way communication. Vegan.com is my soapbox. I want this site, by contrast, to be a source of dialog.”

I hope you’ll follow Erik’s activist life and participate; it’s sure to give you more than a few ideas on how you can become a more effective advocate.

 

* Coincidentally, I’ll be speaking at this year’s conference in June.

One of the great things about the animal-rights community is the wonderful breadth of experience we have. Some activists are relentless leafleters, for example, while others excel at public speaking or writing vegan cookbooks.

Well, over at Vegan.com, Erik Marcus has just posted an excellent blog encouraging activists to use technology ― something I must confess is not my area of expertise. From his podcast to his Web site, Erik has been at the forefront of using technology to promote veganism and advance the interests of animals, and his latest post focuses on three cutting-edge tools we can use: RSS, Facebook and Twitter. He very clearly explains what these tools are, why they’re important and how you can put them to work.

As activists, it’s critical we take full advantage of every opportunity to speak up for animals. Check out Erik’s post here.

mahi_klosterhalfenIf you live in Europe, remember the name Mahi Klosterhalfen. Maybe you’ve already heard of him. From his home in Düsseldorf, Germany, Mahi has made incredible progress on behalf of egg-laying hens in just a few years. Though he’s had a little help from advocates in the U.S., Mahi is clearly an unstoppable activist who has set his sights high on behalf of animals. He now serves as German Food Business rep for Compassion in World Farming, and he’s the vice president of the Albert Schweitzer Foundation. Mahi and I exchanged emails over several days, resulting in this interview.

 

How and when did you become involved in animal activism, Mahi?

Three years ago I started listening to Erik Marcus’ podcast on Vegan.com, and he regularly reported on the great progress that the Humane Society of the United States’ Cage-Free Campus campaign was making. Before I knew it, I was on the phone with Josh Balk from HSUS to discuss how we could bring the campaign to German campuses. After negotiations with the director of dining and some signature gathering, the University of Düsseldorf quickly went cage-free. That got me hungry for more, and I started coaching students all over the country. By now 15 percent of German campuses have gotten rid of cage eggs, and we hope to keep that number growing quickly. These successes have caught the attention of Compassion in World Farming and Germany’s Albert Schweitzer Foundation, and I was soon able to start a professional career as an animal protectionist. 

 

Wow, you really jumped right in. Erik and Josh have inspired me, too.
I owe a lot to these guys, but they are both too humble to admit that.

 

Were you vegan before you started listening to Erik’s podcast?
Yes, for a couple of weeks. I read Gandhi’s autobiography and became a vegetarian. Two months later, I figured that I didn’t want to support the veal industry or the killing of male chicks, either. [Male chicks are of no value to the egg industry and are killed shortly after hatching.] Erik was the one to convince me that getting involved is more important than finding out whether the glue of my postage stamps contained any animal products. He also got me thinking about how to become as effective as I could possibly be. I read Meat Market and picked up a copy of Ethics Into Action right afterward because I was curious why Erik said that Peter Singer hadn’t written a more important book so far. Erik was right: Henry Spira’s approach immediately defined the way I think about activism, and his lessons probably are the most valuable asset I can add to the German movement.   

 

What was it about Henry Spira’s approach that inspired you, and how have you applied what you learned from him into your own activism?
It was highly motivating to see what a single person can accomplish with a smart approach.  It was important for me to understand that decision-makers who don’t immediately follow my suggestions are not automatically my opponents. Executives, for example, are mostly interested in revenues and profits; that’s their job. It’s our job to convince them that acting on welfare issues will pay off sooner or later — and there are usually more elegant methods of persuasion than threatening to launch a campaign. Just recently an executive told me he decided to work with us because he felt that we had an understanding of what’s feasible for his company and what’s not. Internalizing Henry Spira’s lessons on what’s possible on a cooperative level certainly opened a lot of doors and took my activism to another level.

 

Speaking of which, what does a German Food Business rep do?

My job is to introduce Compassion in World Farming’s Good Egg Awards to Germany and Austria. We’re giving European companies and institutions the chance to show that they are market leaders when it comes to improving the lives of the 300 million laying hens who are kept on this continent. So I spend a lot of time convincing CSR [corporate social responsibility] and PR people that it’s important to change their companies’ purchasing policies regarding eggs. I’m also in touch with politicians, asking them to support the awards. The Austrian government is very keen on doing so, as it has just outlawed the production of cage eggs and now thinks of ways to keep imports of such eggs at a minimum.

I like this kind of work because it’s about building positive relationships and because it’s highly effective. So far our winners have helped 15 million hens out of their cages, and we’re planning to double this figure in 2009.

 

With 300 million laying hens, the European continent has about the same amount as the U.S. About how many of those 300 million hens are in battery cages?
Around three-quarters of them are housed in battery cages. But that number is steadily declining thanks to consumers and businesses making more compassionate choices. In Germany, for instance, we ― the Albert Schweitzer Foundation ― and several other animal protection groups have just convinced the entire retail sector to stop selling cage eggs. This huge victory turned the German egg market upside down, and it sends a very strong message to egg producers all across Europe. I don’t see why anybody would want to invest in cages nowadays, and even if they do, it’s getting harder and harder to find a bank willing to give loans for an investment that is so reactionary.

 

You say the Austrian government supports the Good Egg Awards; what about Germany’s politicians?
That very much depends on the party and the individual politician. It’s safe to say that our current government isn’t the most animal-friendly one we’ve ever had, but there signs that it is starting to take animal-issues more seriously, so I do keep my hopes up.

 

What information do you use when you coach students and approach campuses about not buying eggs from caged hens? Did HSUS provide you with literature, or did you have to create your own?

Josh and I figured that the situation in Germany differs so significantly from how things are in the U.S. that I should use my own material. Over here, everybody knows that hens are kept in cages so small they can barely move and that this is a bad thing. Even so, a lot of Germans are slow to make purchasing changes. Groups like Vegan Outreach show that the situation in the U.S. tends to be the other way around: people oftentimes do not to know about factory farming, but they have a much stronger tendency to reduce their support for such farming methods once they find out about them.

We don’t use any materials when we approach the directors of dining. They’ve already seen the pictures of hens crammed into cages. We just have to convince them that cage-free eggs are safe and that students are more than willing to pay a couple of extra cents per egg. This can be quite tricky as the cage lobby has successfully spread the rumor that the risk of salmonella and other infections is a lot higher when you use cage-free eggs.

Independent science, however, comes to the conclusion that the opposite is true. That’s why I’ve compiled a list of reasons why some directors of dining hesitate to make the switch ― and a much longer list that shows why they don’t have to worry about these things. So whenever something comes up, my friends will know how to respond kindly and convincingly.

 

That’s a smart move. Does your activism involve any animals other than laying hens?
Mostly laying hens for now, but this is bound to change during the next months. The EU Pigs Directive is due to be reviewed this year, and we’ll do our best to let European politicians know that the time is ripe to significantly improve the conditions these highly intelligent creatures have to endure. 

I also cannot stand the fact that 30 millions rabbits are raised and slaughtered every single year in Germany without any protection by our law. We’ll try to work with the legislative and the retail sector in order to stop the worst cruelties.

Finally, Germans will be given the opportunity to vote on the state, national and European level this year. Every single party ― we have lots of them ― claims to care deeply for animals, and it’s our job to educate the public about who takes this statement seriously and who doesn’t. 

erikmarcusErik 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 uvgthat 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?

Erik Marcus over at Vegan.com has posted a great blog entry on Thanksgiving. Featuring tgrobinrmouthwatering recipes from vegan cookbook author Robin Robertson, this Thanksgiving menu is sure to please everyone from the die-hard vegan activist to the ardent carnivore (you know, that one grumpy uncle who’s always saying vegans only eat lettuce and tree bark).

 

Robin’s recipes include:

 

Cream of Pumpkin Soup with Curried Pecans
Roasted Wheatmeat with Oyster Mushroom and “Sausage” Stuffing
Stuffed Winter Squash (optional main dish)
Brown Gravy
Roasted Sweet Potato Sticks
Garlic Smashers
Green Bean Casserole
Cranberry Relish
Ginger-Dusted Pumpkin Cheezecake

 

Man, I love Thanksgiving. At least the eating-vegan-goodies part.

 

Also, don’t forget to spend some time with turkeys at your local sanctuary this month!

 

 

 

 

Food is an incredibly powerful component in the activist’s toolkit. It is imbued with special meaning in the psyche of humanity: we need food to nourish our bodies, but we also look to food as the centerpiece of many of our rituals and ceremonies.

 

Because of food’s unique position in our lives, it also offers the promise of transformation, for what we place in our bellies can be the bridge to a higher level of compassion — a rich appreciation of life itself. The simple act of sharing a delicious plant-based meal with someone more accustomed to dining on dead animals may not inspire them to immediately embrace a cruelty-free lifestyle, but it removes another brick from the massive edifice built upon the myths of ethical eating: that vegan food is strange, that it is hard to prepare and, perhaps the biggest false premise, that a meat-based diet is ideal for optimum health.

 

If you’re new to vegetarianism or veganism, or you’ve just never used your love of plant-based food in your activism, getting started can seem a bit daunting. How does one begin? You needn’t be a professional chef or cooking instructor to have an impact on another person. Erica Meier of Compassion Over Killing recommends starting with your immediate circle: friends, family and co-workers. “Bringing vegan treats to the office or hosting a vegan dinner party for your neighbors or meat-eating friends are two simple yet effective ways to introduce others to animal-friendly eating,” she says.

 

One crucial point about using vegan food in your outreach: Make sure the food is delicious. “I will happily eat good vegan food, but I will never offer good vegan food to non-vegans,” says Erik Marcus, author of Meat Market. “Any food I offer to non-vegans has to be outstanding, or I won’t offer it at all. We don’t want non-vegans to try vegan food and decide it’s only okay. We need them to think this is some of the tastiest food they’ve ever eaten.” This attitude applies not only to the food Erik offers, but to the food products he recommends, the cookbooks he suggests and the restaurants he takes his friends to. “Vegan food is indeed a powerful outreach tool, and that’s why I make sure that non-vegetarians get only the very best of what the vegan world has to offer.”

 

Whether you’re bringing in treats to the office or having friends over for dinner, if you’re hoping to encourage someone’s own vegan culinary adventures, don’t start them off with anything too complicated or that contains hard-to-find ingredients. “The food must be easy to make, so that those eating might actually make it at home,” advises activist Monica Engebretson. Chilled Avocado, Tomatillo and Cucumber Soup with Saffron-Lime Ice may be impressive and delicious, but any recipe that calls for saffron threads and toasted Hungarian paprika is not for beginners, and we want to emphasize that veganism is easy! Fortunately, one outreach effort that Monica and countless other activists have found particularly successful uses some of the easiest vegan foods you can find.

 

Feed-Ins

The idea is pretty simple: Hand out free vegan food to the public. After all, who doesn’t like free food? For a feed-in, activists prepare some vegan versions of popular meat-based foods, such as veggie burgers and “chicken” nuggets, and pass out samples at a location with lots of foot traffic ― like the front of a fast-food restaurant. Passersby get to try some tasty vegan treats, have a non-confrontational encounter with an animal activist and, we hope, walk away feeling that veganism isn’t that strange after all. Feed-ins can be as basic as one person with a platter of Tofurky sausage samples and some vegan literature or several activists going all out with a table, veggie dogs with condiments and a banner declaring “FREE Vegetarian Food!”

 

“The challenge with feed-ins is that the food has to be really good,” says activist Nora Kramer. “Plus, you need to present it in a way that looks good and tastes good at that moment, like on a street corner. Vegan chicken nuggets, for instance, taste really good, if they’re hot, with ketchup or barbecue sauce. If they’re cold? Um, not so good. You’re really not helping any chickens. Same thing with giving out vegan ice cream – you’ve got to keep it cold. If it’s a hot day, no one’s going to want you’re melted, liquidy ice cream. So, keeping things hot or cold and presenting it in a way that will make people want to try it is important.”

 

Nora also notes that it’s important people know why you’re there. “It needs to be clear that you’re not representing Soy Delicious or whatever,” she says. “You’re there volunteering your time because you care about animals and you want people to know that vegan food tastes really good.”

 

Mercy For Animals' feed in

Mercy For Animals' feed in

Nathan Runkle of Mercy For Animals (MFA) advises getting the food donated, if possible. “When soliciting food donations,” he says, “keep in mind what will be easiest to prepare and how you’re going to distribute it. Soy ice cream in tubs, for example, is going to be more difficult to distribute than Tofutti Cuties, which come pre-wrapped.”

 

Getting companies to donate food is not that difficult, according to Caroline McAleese of Vegan Campaigns, which organizes annual food fairs and monthly vegan food and information stalls in busy shopping areas. “If you do not already have a contact name at the company,” she says, “I would send an email to the general address, then follow it up with a phone call and keep the contact name for next time. I normally write quite a detailed email about the event or stall. I would include how many people you would expect to come, the venue and the aim of the event.”

 

Caroline also recommends giving the company an incentive, such as adding their name to a flier for the event, offering to give out their leaflets at the event and posting a link on your Web site to theirs. “It’s good to feed back to the companies afterwards, to show them photos and let them know how it went.”

 

If this all sounds like feed-ins are a complicated exercise demanding many people, relax. “Most of the feed-ins we do are just a couple people,” Nathan says. “It’s taken us a little while to master the marketing of feed-ins, because if you just go the street corner wearing regular clothes, and you’re handing out food, it seems kind of sketchy, and people get a little nervous taking food from strangers.” So now Nathan and his fellow activists don black aprons and plastic gloves, giving their feed-ins an air of professionalism. “We also have a large banner that reads ‘For the Animals, Earth and Your Health ― Enjoy a Free Vegan Sample.’ This makes it look more like an event so people will come up to try the food.” To really make an impact, MFA sometimes sets up a table with the dipping sauces, vegetarian starter kits and local veg guide. “The veg guide also lists health food stores, so we can tell people how to find specialty items,” he says.

 

Of course, there are countless other ways to use vegan food in your outreach, from bringing homemade cookies to work or school to asking your favorite restaurant or campus cafeteria to carry (more) vegan entrees.

 

Although there are many other tactics for helping animals, when we speak of animal cruelty, the overwhelming majority of abuse is suffered by animals who are bred, raised and eventually slaughtered because humans happen to enjoy eating them. And because most of the Earth’s human inhabitants directly contribute to the needless cruelty suffered by so many billions of non-human animals each year simply by eating them, changing the hearts and minds of these people yields extraordinary benefits. So if you’ve never used vegan food in your outreach, give it a try. I’m betting you’ll find it fun.


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