Review: “How to Create a Vegan World: A Pragmatic Approach” by Tobias Leenaert

In his new book, “How to Create a Vegan World,” Tobias Leenaert unveils a pragmatic approach to vegan advocacy. He argues persuasively that vegans’ goal should be reaching a tipping point, so that veganism becomes our default lifestyle.

 

Tobias Leenaert has spent a lifetime dedicated to advocating for animal rights, and his desire to find the most effective and pragmatic form of activism is understandable given his background. He helped found the Belgian organization EVA (Ethical Vegetarian Alternative), which campaigned successfully for Ghent to become the first city with a weekly vegetarian day. He is currently working together with vegan psychologist and fellow advocate, Melanie Joy,  at the Center of Effective Vegan Advocacy (CEVA). In addition,  he co-founded Pro-Veg, a pro-vegan group that has a goal of reducing animal consumption by 50% by 2040.

Tobias Leenaert’s Pragmatic Approach

Unfortunately, within the vegan community, pragmatic approaches to advocacy are not always appreciated. Ethical vegans generally find pragmatism less desirable than idealism. And they also fear pragmatic approaches will lead vegans down a “slippery slope,” where the definition of veganism becomes diluted, devolving into nothing more than a diet, rather than remaining true to its revolutionary ideals.

The most well known critic of a pragmatic approach is Professor Gary Francione, whose book Animal Rights: The Abolitionist Approach defines the Abolitionist movement within Animal rights. Francione’s believes veganism must always be presented as a moral baseline, and that other reasons for eating a plant based diet (such as personal health or the environment), largely detract from the movement, unless animal rights are clearly at the core of one’s dietary decisions.

This puts activists in the uncomfortable (and many would argue, untenable) position of more or less representing the vegan thought police. This is particularly evident in publications like the news site Ecorazzi, which devote a considerable amount of their journalistic endeavours to demonstrating that vegans are not “truly vegan” because they are vegan for their health, rather than for the animals. Another favourite target of Abolitionists are reductionists, who asks people to “eat beans, not beef.” These apostates, they argue, are terrible for veganism, since they aren’t explicitly and exclusively asking people to go vegan.

 

Pragmatism doesn’t undermine idealism

Interestingly, I often find that, in spite of accusations to the contrary, pragmatic animal advocates (such as Leenaert) are the most optimistic and idealistic about changing the world. This is perhaps because, unlike Francione’s Abolitionist approach, a pragmatic strategy does not rest on the good will and self-discipline of others.

You see, in order for the Abolitionist approach to veganism to succeed, advocates must change hearts and minds. Not only that, but in order to be a truly effective abolitionist advocate,  we need to change hearts and minds FIRST (by persuading people to go vegan for the animals, and for no other reason) which is not an easy task.

And while Leenaert clearly sympathizes with the idealism behind this approach, he’s not willing to wait for the world to choose veganism out of the goodness of their hearts.

The book is filled with ambitious dreams of a vegan world. But it’s also filled with a myriad of practical strategies to help animal advocates be more effective at communicating their message.

Allow all the reasons

Leenaert argues that instead of insisting on ethical veganism as a moral baseline, we must allow all reasons. This means giving people room to adopt a plant-based diet for health or environmental concerns. It also means (perhaps) asking people to reduce their consumption of animal products, rather than always and only asking people to go vegan.

I differ somewhat on this point, as I don’t (and probably won’t) personally advocate for reducetarianism. There are already plenty of great advocates for reducetarianism out there, such as Brian Kateman. And I don’t think the world necessarily needs more vegans asking people to reduce their animal intake. For one thing, I’m somewhat inclined to agree with Francione that it’s morally inconsistent to ask people to do less of something you think is wrong. To be blunt, I’d rather ask people to stop eating animals. If they stop, great. And if they eat less, that’s still great, because it will increase the demand for vegan options.

(And maybe all the advocacy styles?)

This leads to another aspect of vegan advocacy that isn’t directly addressed within the book, but one that I think is truly important: different styles of advocacy. I do not think there is a single best approach to advocacy. What works for one person may not work for another. This is one reason that I have argued in the past that activism doesn’t need to be perfect to be effective, and we shouldn’t waste time as advocates criticizing others for what we perceive as “inferior” activism.

And while I understand Tobias’ argument that we should focus our meagre resources on the most effective forms of activism, I believe this fails to take into account the individual variation between activists. An enthusiastic young DxE volunteer might be completely disinterested working on public policy, and yet be incredibly energized by a street protest. And a seasoned policy is likely to feel terribly uncomfortable marching alongside someone shouting “it’s not food, it’s violence” into a megaphone. There’s more than one way to peel a carrot, and there are as many approaches as there are people.

Conclusions

I really enjoyed this book, and I found it especially useful as a counterbalance to Francione’s Animal Rights: The Abolitionist Approach, which I also appreciated but found lacking in practical strategies, particularly in the realm of business (Francione has little interest in the realm of commerce, and it shows).

I also very much appreciate that “How to Create a Vegan World” looks at exactly how a tipping point for veganism can be achieved, and delves more deeply into the psychology of change. Whereas Francione’s “Abolitionist Approach” is about ethical philosophy, Leenaert’s “Pragmatic Approach” looks more at choice architecture and nudging people towards change.

While Abolitionist vegans are likely to sneer at Leenaert’s pragmatic approach for its impurity, it’s important to note that marketers do not use ethics to appeal to consumers. They use psychology. And psychology just works better.

Instead of trying to appeal (exclusively) to the public’s higher nature, Leenaert provides another option: give them “wrong reasons” to do the right thing. This doesn’t mean deliberate deception. It simply means surrendering control over the medium in favour of the message. Vegan advocates are old pros at telling people not only what they should think about animal rights, but why they ought to believe it. And it’s not working very well. Perhaps it is time for an approach that focuses on helping people change their behaviour, without necessarily making repentance and conversion our central focus.

What do you think about a pragmatic approach? Does it work for you?

2 Responses to “Review: “How to Create a Vegan World: A Pragmatic Approach” by Tobias Leenaert

  • Oh boy!!

    Where do I begin?

    My comment is in point form, and follows from what you were saying in your video, and I wanted to get this done before my head hits the pillow…

    Tobias has been “vegan” for almost 20 years, not over 20 years.

    I don’t think he has worked for or been involved in any animal rights groups.

    Pro-Veg is a pro vegetarian group, not pro-vegan group. Tobias founded it with the another anti-vegan ‘professional’ Sebastian Joy.

    The book has very little to pragmatism, or ethics and is entirely about changing veganism to encourage and accept the rights violations of other animals.

    We don’t “know” that many of the people who go vegan, have trouble staying vegan. That information came from a Faunalytics ‘survey’ that combined vegetarians with vegans.

    The ‘abolitionist vegans’ that are lead by Gary Francione are part of a counter movement, and do not consider themselves part of any movement other than their own.

    Controversial doesn’t necessarily equate to positive.

    “effective advocacy” is a myth, without knowing who your audience is, how can you measure the ‘effectiveness’ of your message?

    Marketing tells us that the average consumer needs 12 – 15 exposures to the same message (sometimes from different sources), before they are open to ‘hearing it’. Haven’t you ever noticed why ads are repeated soooo often?

    The “any reason for going vegan” is the foot in the door approach, and is accepted by all the vegan educators that I am aware of.

    When you say “100% vegan”, you are further the anti-vegan view that veganism is an “all or nothing” situation, and that we are only interested in ‘purity’.

    Interesting that you talk about transgressions.

    I think that if you call yourself vegan, then you should be able to be held accountable for your actions if you are doing something that ‘isn’t vegan”.

    From my perspective, this isn’t so much about calling people out, as it about those vegans who come after us.

    Remember, everything that Tobias writes and talks about is from the utilitarian perspective.

    Despite what he claims, he actually rejects and dismisses the concept of moral rights for other animals.

    • Hi Cameron! Thanks for stopping by. I’ll do my best to respond to your comments in the order they were presented.

      – I may have confused Tobias involvement in animal rights groups with his being vegan for that whole time.
      – From what he said in the book (particularly regarding dissatisfaction with other animal rights groups), I assumed he had been working in the US for a major organization, such as PETA or Mercy for Animals. Since you are more familiar with Tobias than I am, do you know of any other organizations he’s worked for besides his own?
      – Pro-Veg is described as pro-vegan in the book, although given the book’s relaxed attitude towards such labels, it’s possible that it is more broadly vegetarian.

      – I believe it’s inaccurate to state the book is “entirely about changing veganism to encourage and accept the rights violations of other animals.” The book is primarily about “How to Create a Vegan World”, although some vegans may consider Tobias’ strategy an attempt to persuade vegans to water down veganism.

      – Although the Faunalytics survey gives us some data, the idea that “people who go vegan have trouble staying vegan” is borne out by experience. This is something Tom Regan bemoaned frequently, and having “backslidden” myself (though I think I was more of one of Tobias’ 99% vegans) after University, I can confirm that I personally know a number of ex-vegans irl.

      _ I agree re: abolitionist vegans, although they obviously believe they are the “one true movement.”

      – I also agree that “controversial doesn’t necessarily equate to positive.”

      – Re: “effective advocacy” – the reason I advocate for a number of approaches is exactly for the reason you state: we can’t be effective without knowing our audience, and every audience is different.

      – “Marketing tells us that the average consumer needs 12 – 15 exposures to the same message (sometimes from different sources), before they are open to ‘hearing it’. Haven’t you ever noticed why ads are repeated soooo often?” – This is very true, it’s precisely the reason I think we should encourage people to share veganism everywhere in their own way, as long as they are committed to non-violence.

      – Re: Transgressions. I grew up in a (very) conservative Christian family, and there was a great deal of emphasis on “apostacy” and people who had “fallen away” or “weren’t real Christians.” I find that vegans tend to use a very similar vocabulary to religious radicals. And unfortunately, this is not limited to the abolitionist puritans.

      – Re: being 100% vegan – I’d be interested in hearing you expand on the idea that veganism is not an “all or nothing” situation.

      – “I think that if you call yourself vegan, then you should be able to be held accountable for your actions if you are doing something that ‘isn’t vegan”.” Again, my concern with this is that we can easily end up in radicalism territory, where we spend more time witch hunting than doing anything positive. That’s why I very strongly believe we should share a vegan message (I’m not keen on the reducetarian message, as I don’t think it’s appropriate for vegans) and keep the definition of veganism clear. Let people know what veganism is (clearly) and leave their personal conduct to their own conscience, unless it is a gross transgression – such as a popular vegan YouTuber buying $700 non-vegan shoes and then tagging them all over social media so she can receive a commission when other people buy them.

      Re: Utilitarianism – I tend to come at things from a moderate utilitarian perspective myself, as I think many pragmatic people do (if we want to get technical about it, I lean towards negative utilitarianism, which is somewhat different, though I’d never say I was purely utilitarian). I think if we are allowing “all the reasons” for veganism, we have to include people who may not share the belief in moral rights for other animals (or even other people, as in the case of Singer).

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