» December 30th, 2014

The following quote is from George Monbiot’s most recent Guardian column. It’s worth reading in full, but for now:

“[W]hile researching my book Feral, I came to see that our perception of free-range meat has also been sanitised. The hills of Britain have been sheepwrecked – stripped of their vegetation, emptied of wildlife, shorn of their capacity to hold water and carbon – all in the cause of minuscule productivity. It is hard to think of any other industry, except scallop dredging, with a higher ratio of destruction to production. As wasteful and destructive as feeding grain to livestock is, ranching could be even worse. Meat is bad news, in almost all circumstances.”

That’s good stuff. He continues:

“So why don’t we stop? Because we don’t know the facts, and because we find it difficult even if we do. A survey by the US Humane Research Council discovered that only 2% of Americans are vegetarians or vegans, and more than half give up within a year. Eventually, 84% lapse. One of the main reasons, the survey found, is that people want to fit in. We might know it’s wrong, but we block our ears and carry on.”

And he concludes:

“Rather than mindlessly consuming meat at every meal, we should think of it as an extraordinary gift: a privilege, not a right. We could reserve meat for a few special occasions, such as Christmas, and otherwise eat it no more than once a month.”

So here’s the question I’m left with: is it more achievable to attain complete abstinence or, as Monbiot suggests, to treat meat as a rare luxury, a once a month kind of indulgence? I realize the ethics of this choice are clear. But what about the pragmatics? I mean, that 84 percent number is fairly daunting.

33 Responses to “Sheepwrecked”

  1. Michael says:

    I can’t remember where I saw it, but I read recently that numbers for lapsed vegetarians tend to be skewed because most people included in such polls were never actually ethical vegetarians/vegans. Or, in fact, weren’t ever actually vegetarians at all, in that they still ate chicken or fish while calling themselves vegetarians, or were vegetarians for their health. I would think that, among people who give up animal products for ethical reasons, once they become aware of the suffering and environmental destruction their production entails, the rate of lapses is much lower.

  2. Interesting piece! A root problem is dietary recidivism – which is widespread beyond vegetarians. Many people with serious obesity, COPD, and other issues also revert back to diets that will sicken and kill them, just as many smokers and other addicts revert back to their unhealthy behaviors.

    I believe rates of dietary redicivism can be reduced – part of the solution being new strategies like mindfulness. My next book will be on losing weight and I’m working on that problem (both for myself and in the book).

    Not to open the same old can of spinach (again), I also think that, so long as some vegans insist on all-or-nothing approach to veganism, and/or shaming and blaming those who falter, we’ll see higher rates of recidivism. Making veganism an all-or-nothing proposition leads people to despair of success and give up. And shaming and insulting those who are struggling often leads to the “rebellion” form of procrastination–”F you, I’m eating that steak.” You can shame and blame both groups of people for insufficient commitment to the cause–similar to blaming a struggling overweight person for lack of willpower–but that’s only hurting your case. It’s also cruel and, in my view, a violation of vegan values.

  3. John T. Maher says:

    Be careful with Monbiot. He is a policy wonk who specializes in EZ reading and dogmatic thought repetition, his criticism of the Rwandan and Yugoslavian genocide nook a case in point. Compromise ethics to allow for less meat eating? That is what is already occurring in economic terms and will continue. Is that a bad thing? The killing of animals occurs at a greater rate than ever. Rationing cheeseburgers is almost discussed in terms of Virtue Ethics by Monbiot (he avoids this term but the logic is copied) but do not expect anyone to sign onto that in a culture which is concerned with individual rights instead of social responsibility. In fact, Monbiot sounds a bit like medieval religious orders where meat was reserved for feast days. A better outcome? Yes but the theory concerning why is unsound. The readers of Eating Plants and Guardian deserve better than Monbiot.

  4. Heidi W says:


    The HRC study is highly flawed as detailed in the following article: http://veganpublishers.com/animal-advocacy-and-the-scientific-method-the-humane-research-council-study/

    So to answer your question re: pragmatics. I would counter to Monbiot first: “Make sure your data is legit.” And second, “Are we really going to allow mob mentality to give us a free pass for dangerous/unethical behavior?” Every mom knows the answer to that one. “If all your friends jumped off a cliff…”

  5. scott says:

    People are averse to change. Progress is always gradual. Demanding instant change often leads to no progress. People can cut down on animal products significantly over time and still feel like they fit in.

    If people try Meatless Monday or Vegan Before Six, they can succeed and take additional steps over time. It is important that the first step feels like a positive thing for them and doesn’t make them feel like an outcast.

    We must accept that people resist change and want to fit in, and that we live in a world where almost everyone eats animal products three times per day. It is pragmatism or nothing. I’ll take pragmatism.


    • Tina says:

      Agree completely. This approach is not only beneficial now, but I expect it would lead to the next generation deciding to eat less and less meat.

      We have friends who eat mostly vegetarian, but their three kids eat no meat and the youngest is now vegan.

      While some people go vegan “cold turkey” others need a gradual approach, and I think the author’s column in the Guardian is an invitation for those who are considering veganism.

      • I submit that even a lot of the “instantaneous” conversions really aren’t. I went vegan immediately after watching Peaceable Kingdom at my first AR conference, ten years ago. But that followed decades of social activism and on-and-off vegetarianism. AND a lifelong love of animals.

        I was primed to convert, in other words–and I suspect many other instantaneous converts are, too.

  6. Barb Lomow says:

    Below are a couple of important critiques of the Humane Research Council study itself. This particular quote from one of the critiques sums up what makes more than a few of us “out here” uneasy in regards to the HRC conclusions:

    “[T]he study was conducted by a non-profit, with the help of other non-profits, and was funded by non-profits. That is, this was conducted by movement elites who specialize in grant-writing, not the scientific method. Indeed, I have become increasingly concerned at the misappropriation of science to support some very unscientific claims. “Science” and “evidence” works to legitimize the welfarist position. I worry that few actually question who is conducting this research and how affiliation and funding sources may seriously bias the procedure and interpretation of results.”

    The fact that A) Matt Ball is now a staff member at one of the groups who funded the study [ http://www.vegfund.org/vegfund-team.html ], and B) individuals and groups who deliberately shy away from promoting a clear vegan message to their respective donor bases are involved with the study, along with C) the HRC itself has multiple advisors on its Team who are directly associated with the anti-vegan, pro-animal-consumption HSUS [ https://www.facebook.com/HSUSFarmerOutreach ] can’t help but suggest potential conflict of interest issues.

    Sailesh Rao supplied a quote in his comment to one of your recent posts, James, and the conclusions of this recent HRC study immediately came to mind when I read it: “To paraphrase Andrew Weaver from the AGU Fall Meeting, 2014, Nicolette Niman is engaged in decision-based evidence-making, instead of evidence-based decision-making.”




    • Marc Bedner says:

      Although many simplistic vegans have criticized this study, I find its conclusions consistent with what I have experienced. People who adopt a vegan diet as a personal health fad quickly move on to some other fad. People who are concerned about saving animal lives are far more likely to stick to a plant-based diet. (I do not use the term vegan myself, as it is typically identified with mindless PETA drivel.)

      Scientific studies do not typically address ethical issues, so it is not surprising that this study does not consider ethics. But it does address what they call “motivation”:
      >>While the only motivation cited by a majority of former vegetarians/vegans was health, a number of motivations were identified by a majority of current vegetarians/vegans: health,
      animal protection, concern for the environment, feelings of disgust about meat/animal products, and taste preferences.

      • unethical_vegan says:

        If you meet a vegan on the road, kill them.

      • I have to respectfully disagree – although I think a lot of the disagreement comes from your use of your term “fad.” Sure, there are plenty of people who will adopt veganism faddishly, and not sustain it. But it’s also pretty obvious that there are many who have sustained a serious long term commitment to eating at least a part-vegan diet for health reasons.

        Egg consumption has declined a lot and sustainably over the decades due mainly to cholesterol concerns, and beef consumption is currently experiencing what looks like it will be a long term decline, due presumably to health concerns (because many beef eaters regrettably switch to “healthier” chicken). I wish we could analyze consumption by ethnic/national origin groups because I think it would show even steeper declines if we excluded first- and second-generation immigrants to the US, but I haven’t seen that data. Also, if beef, etc., weren’t propped up by govt subsidies (hence, lower prices) I think the declines would be much steeper.

        MANY of the people who stopped by our weekly Vegan Kalamazoo farmers market table last summer said their primary concern was health. While they may not be ethically vegan, they still eat a lot of vegan meals. (Our job is to get them to eat even more vegan meals.)

        Also, I just got back from Japan. There is a vegan raman soup place right in Tokyo station–the location is important because it’s super-convenient; you don’t have to go out of your way to eat vegan. (And the food is fantastic, btw.) People basically stop in on their way to/from work. We were told that many people eating there were concerned not about animals, but their health.

        I think the “ethics are the only sustainable motive for veganism” argument is not just wrong, but tragically misguided. The animals don’t really care why we stop eating them, just that we do–and every vegan meal, consumed for any reason, saves lives. (And can also be the basis for further veganism–as others here have noted, change takes time.) Health concerns can also be the “gateway drug” that gets people to think critically about their food, and that can only be good for our movement as well.

        PS – “Simplistic vegan” LOL

  7. Pete Sullivan says:

    With this logic, it would then be okay to beat up my dog or cat once a month.

    • unethical_vegan says:

      And with this kind of logic it would be OK to domesticate wild animals and subject them to a master-slave relationship for nothing more than emotional entertainment.


  8. Kristina Labart says:

    I am very pleased to tell that in Sweden the amount of vegetarians are estimated to be 10% of a 10 million population. 4% are estimated to be vegans of this 10%.
    According to a study that the WeightWatchers recently have done half of the population are considered to be “semivegetarians”, which means that they are trying to avoid meat. This year also words like “köttnorm” (meat norm) and “matnationalism” (food nationalism) was introduced in the vocabulary of neologisms. As a Finn and member of the Swedish Animals Party and working on founding a Finnish Animal Justice Party I am going to introduce these neologisms in the Finnish vocabulary also. Happy New Year!

  9. Rhys Southan says:

    I think it’s probably more plausible to imagine meat being an occasional indulgence for most people than to hope for everyone going vegan, but I can see why that’s controversial. On one level that seems completely obvious: the more someone has to sacrifice for a particular belief, the less sustainable that belief will be. Eating meat only on holidays – or once a week or once a month or whatever it is – is less of a sacrifice than never eating animal products, so theoretically more people should want to sign up for it.

    On the other hand, it may be that the ethics requiring animal product consumption to drop to a small percentage of one’s diet rather than to zero are more confused or contradictory than vegan ethics. Plus, “semi-vegetarian” or whatever it’s called when you eat animal products only rarely probably doesn’t provide what veganism does as far as being an identity associated with an ethical ideal. If vegans are trading the pleasure of eating animal products for the pleasure of feeling like they embody an ethical ideal, they may be making a better trade than someone who trades the pleasure of frequent animal product consumption for the less meaningful “semi-vegetarian” identity.

    And for various reasons, it might be that it’s easier to slip from low animal product consumption to high animal product consumption than it is to slip from zero animal product consumption to any amount of animal product consumption.

    When I read Meat: A Benign Extravagance as an ex-vegan, Simon Fairlie’s vision of societies with rare but not non-existent animal product consumption struck me as implausible for those reasons. Eating animal products only sometimes seemed harder to me than never eating them because the occasional meat eater would not develop a psychological aversion to animal products (though of course not all vegans do either), and would likely feel the lack of animal products more strongly during the periods without them than most vegans would. Plus, the ethics allowing occasional animal product consumption can more easily be stretched to allow for frequent animal product consumption, because unlike vegan ethics, they don’t have bans against raising animals and slaughtering them.

    However, living in a vegetarian co-op again and eating meat only occasionally has made me think that eating meat rarely isn’t necessarily that difficult on an individual level. On a larger scale, it might help if meat became associated with certain holidays or special events. And if it’s environmental realities rather than ethical concerns leading people toward reduced animal product consumption, then the occasional meat indulgence rather than total veganism definitely seems like the more likely option.

    • unethical_vegan says:

      “Plus, “semi-vegetarian” or whatever it’s called when you eat animal products only rarely probably doesn’t provide what veganism does as far as being an identity associated with an ethical ideal.”


      You’ve been an ex-vegan for how many years? Can you please let me know when are you going to stop thinking like a “dictionary” vegan? And it’s even more ironic that you can write this after being repeatedly taken to task for this type of absolutism by flexitarians/almost vegans/veganish veg*ns and tEh dreAded “spock-like” logical/utilitarian vegans on your blog.

      • Rhys Southan says:

        Thanks for calling me out on this. I think you’re right. This comment came out differently than I was intending when I started to write it, and yeah, there’s no reason to believe that eating only vegan food is the only way to feel allied with some sort of ethical ideal.

  10. Jerry says:

    Incremental reduction in meat eating might no longer be a pragmatic option if one accepts the urgent need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and the large contribution from animal agriculture.

    Dr. Richard A. Oppenlander lays out the case in, “Food Choice and Sustainability: Why Buying Local, Eating Less Meat, and Taking Baby Steps Won’t Work.” James discussed Dr. Oppenlander’s previous book, “Comfortably Unaware: What We Choose to Eat Is Killing Us and Our Planet” at: http://james-mcwilliams.com/?p=560 .

  11. Elaine Livesey-Fassel says:

    Apart from my profound concerns about Climate Change and all it implies for the health of our existence on this besieged planet, as well as the lethal environmental costs of large scale industrial farming, for this reader the most salient concern is the CRUELTY to animals domestic and wild that renders me UNWILLING/ UNABLE to eat meat of any sort. How one can read about or witness videos of such abuse and STILL choose to consume this tragic ‘product’ is totally beyond my comprehension. I feel as if I belong to a different species than those who so blithely kill and consume. I just DON’T understand them!!

  12. Nick says:

    So if we are so inclined to rape and only do it once a year is that ok? If we are so inclined to steal from others what we simply want is it ok to do once a year on our birthday? I know you and my friend Gary Francione are sometimes at odds but allow me – he often uses the example of beating of slaves. If you only beat them on occasion it that OK? No and NO and NO. My heart is with Gary as an abolitionist so my position is clear. Humans are generally selfish and that comes to what they eat. They care about climate change – but not enough. They care about world peace – but now enough. They care about animals and their suffering – but not enough. So pure vegans are going to be a very small number for as long as people care not enough. That will be a long long time.

    • Taylor says:

      “That will be a long long time.” So until that distant future, what practical measure do you recommend to the general public?
      (A) Carry on as usual (since you, Jane or John Doe, are very unlikely ever to become vegan)?
      (B) Step by step, try to reduce the harm you are doing?

    • Maria Comninou says:

      I am with you, Nick. I do not condemn or criticize anyone anymore; let them do their baby steps or not. Even well-intentioned and otherwise ethical people do not change their eating habits unless they see their animal victims screaming in front of them before they are served to them in a platter, and this is not happening. I am a vegan fof almost 29 years now, but even the people that agreed with me and supported me originally have mostly reverted to their old eating habits.

      • i_fight_for_less_grey says:

        I am with you, Maria. Even well-intentioned and otherwise ethical “vegans” routinely jet-off to some distant locale and drive to bakeries/restaurants to purchase expensive treats. How can these vegans turn their eyes away from the death and suffering caused by GHG pollution, slash and burn deforestation, frivolous consumption, and factory plant farming?

    • peter says:

      I am a vegan too, but when I was reading your analogies, all I could think was “hell yeah I would love to be raped only once a month rather than multiple times a day”. If people changing is what we want/need, then I think it best we applaud moves in the right direction, while still challenging them to be better still.

      • Nick says:

        Is it “better” to be raped once a month than multiple times a day but if that means you will be raped once a month for the rest of your life and then killed the scenario changes. What would you want to happen then?

        • Isabella says:

          Respectfully (because I am in favor of all animal advocacy though I am without reservations an animal liberationist), in the analogy above, you will be killed in in any case, whether you are raped multiple times a day or once a month.

          I found these excerpts from Pattrice Jones’ 2008 paper (link below) enlightening:

          …’The question of animal protection legislation has become ever more vexing for animal liberationists in the context of two crosscurrents in contemporary animal advocacy, one of which characterizes such legislation as counterproductive and the other of which seems to support that characterization. The acrimonious character of the debate, with little in the way of productive dialogue between proponents and opponents of such legislation and much evidence of groupthink on both sides, pressures some activists into quickly picking a side and leaves others feeling frustrated and adrift. Rather than putting forth yet another critique or defense of animal welfare legislation in general, this paper offers a method of strategic analysis that may be used to assess specific proposed measures, using the question of battery cages as a case example.
          In recent years, a hardline “abolitionist” position in which efforts to improve the well-being of currently existing animals are condemned as “welfarist” impediments to the future liberation of animals has gained momentum within animal advocacy. The absolutist style of discourse favored by the most vocal proponents of this position has had the effect, over time, of obscuring the important distinction between true “welfarists” — such as members of the “North Carolina Responsible Animal Owners Alliance,” who believe that animals are rightly property but who argue that animals ought to be treated humanely — and true animal liberationists who support measures to improve the welfare of animals either as interim measures or as steps in a strategic plan for the liberation of animals. Thus such prominent women in animal liberation as Ingrid Newkirk of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (who has argued that any recognition of any animal rights by legislators is a step toward the recognition of full rights) and Karen Davis of United Poultry Concerns (who has argued that the interests of individual existing animals ought not be ignored by humans who purport to speak for animals as a group) has been mischaracterized as welfarists, often in quite insulting terms. Such derisive mischaracterization has created a bullying atmosphere in which persons who are less certain of their position in the movement may hesitate to depart from doctrinaire opinions for fear of being similarly smeared. Female activists, in particular, may shy away from expressing concern for the welfare of actual animals for fear of being labeled soft-minded or sentimental. This state of affairs makes it difficult for activists to collectively talk through the nuanced details that always must be discussed when people try to put principles into action in the real world.
          …”16. Animal welfare is a component of animal liberation
          Animals want freedom and well-being. Since animals ought to be the bosses of animal liberation and since actually existing animals have clearly expressed the wish for relief of their own suffering, we cannot justly ignore current animal welfare even if we believe that ultimate liberation is the more important goal. Due to pain’s evolutionary role as a signal of emergency, acute pain tends to block out all other considerations. Animals in acute pain undoubtedly want the relief of that suffering more than anything else. If the acute pain of actually existing animals can be relieved, then we must do so — or, at least, not interfere with others who are doing so — unless we are certain that the means of doing so will cause harm to other actually existing animals. If harm might be caused to actually existing animals, then probabilities must be assessed and ethical decisions made. We may not refuse to relieve suffering of actually existing animals — and certainly may not interfere with others who are doing so — for the sake of possible future animals for whom the existing animals have not consented to be sacrificed. Whether or not a particular effort to improve animal welfare will improve welfare without causing harm and whether or not that effort might also be a component in a long-term strategy for animal liberation can only be determined by analysis of that particular effort.”

  13. Nick says:

    I would not suggest we abandon animals living today as part of future abolition potential. I say we must fight for animals to live today! Simplistic hypothetical – if we accept small incremental welfare today and it delays abolition a generation that means billions more animals will suffer. Using animals for our pleasure is wrong and this human species must be made, in any ethical way we can, to understand this and welfare just delays the ultimate goal. If slavery – I know you have heard this before – was given lip service by incorporating welfare in the incremental that animal abuse is being given it would still be in place today. Welfare will not allow us to approach a tipping point in this quest. It will just delay it again and again and again. Welfare kills momentum and the big corporations promote their inclusion of welfare practices as they know it does this.

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