Wednesday, December 24, 2014

10 Questions: Vegan Rockstar Edition with Mark Hawthorne

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After years of us both writing features for VegNews, I finally got the chance to meet Mark Hawthorne at the most recent Chicago VeganMania, which his wonderful partner, lauren Ornelas spoke at; we were fortunate enough to have Mark accompany her and also speak on a panel with me. In person, Mark is a very thoughtful person, soft-spoken but full of great insights and observations, bringing a refreshing curiosity, humility and awareness that comes from being a seasoned world traveler.

As author of the acclaimed book that I am eager to dig into, Bleating Hearts: The Hidden World of Animal Suffering (which follows his previous book, Striking at the Roots: A Practical Guide to Animal Activism ), Mark shines a penetrating light on the dark, hidden corners often not seen from our vantage point as dominator of other species: the deeply disturbing extent to which animals are abused and tortured to become the "products" we eat, wear and don’t pay much mind to is staggering, even to well-informed activists. Even with this knowledge, though, Mark maintains his vital role as a dedicated journalist with a big heart and a sharp, inquisitive mind. We are fortunate to have Mark as part of the vegan movement, shining a light on these hidden corners, helping our society to collectively evolve beyond our mentality of use, ownership and domination. Thank you for all you do, Mark Hawthorne.

1. First of all, we’d love to hear your “vegan evolution” story. How did you start out? Did you have any early influences or experiences as a young person that in retrospect helped to pave your path?

I was a sensitive kid who loved animals, but like most people, I grew up eating and wearing them without thinking that the animals on my plate could feel pain just like the dogs, cats, mice, and turtles who lived in the house.

My long evolution really began in 1984, when I read The Razor’s Edge by Somerset Maugham. It’s not a pro-animal book, but it made me think about my place in the world and what kind of person I wanted to be as did Walden, by Henry David Thoreau, which I read in 1986. Several years later, I began traveling around the world, beginning with Europe. I was still eating meat in 1992 when I went to Pamplona to run with the bulls, but the experience left me changed; it was the first time I had considered the lives of other animals, and I felt ashamed for participating. A couple months later, I was living with a Buddhist family in the Himalayas, and almost everything I ate came from their garden. As winter approached, the family dug a big hole in the yard, harvested what remained of the veggies, and buried them. A couple cows lived across the road in the village, and the family let one of these beautiful brown bovines into the yard to munch on the stalks and stems of the garden. I had never been so close to a cow, and as I watched her eat, I realized she had as much desire and right to live as anyone else. It was easy to go vegetarian at that point, but it took another decade to go vegan. That came after visiting a sanctuary for farmed animals and meeting some hens from the egg industry and cows from the dairy industry. I just didn’t want to be a part of supporting that cruelty anymore.

2. Imagine that you are pre-vegan again: how could someone have talked to you and what could they have said or shown you that could have been the most effective way to have a positive influence on you moving toward veganism?

If someone had said to me, “Mark, I know you are compassionate and love animals and are trying to lead an ethical life, so I’d like you to come with me to a sanctuary where cows, chickens, hens, turkeys, sheep, goats, and rabbits live in peace and never have to worry about being abused,” I would have gladly gone. If that person had taken me to Animal Place or Farm Sanctuary early on, it would have put me on the vegan fast track. Meeting factory farm refugees, learning their stories, and appreciating these animals as individuals are what finally got me to cut out dairy and eggs. Oh, and honey. I’ve never actually met a bee, but I don’t eat honey, either.

3. What have you found to be the most effective way to communicate your message as a vegan? For example, humor, passion, images, etc.?

I believe every touch point we provide to people—whether it’s through a clever Vegan Street t-shirt or telling a story or sharing a documentary or handing out leaflets or doing a blog or whatever—is important. These messages have a cumulative effect. Rare is the person who has their “aha” moment right away.

Once a person “gets” the message, I think it’s equally important that we encourage them on their path. When someone you know goes vegan, be a mentor to them. Remind them to be patient with themselves; vegans sometimes stumble, and that’s OK. Recommend cookbooks and websites and restaurants. Lend them your favorite books. Tell them about B12 supplements. Share videos with them. Suggest they sign up for Food Empowerment Project’s free vegan-retention newsletter. In a recent HRC survey of former vegetarians and vegans, 84% said they had not been involved in veg*n groups or organizations, so clearly support is a big key to staying with it. Help make new vegans part of the vegan community!

4. What do you think are the biggest strengths of the vegan movement?

Unlike animal ag, which is motivated by money, the vegan movement is motivated by altruism and a desire to make this world a better place, and I think that’s really powerful. That’s not to say we don’t have wonderful vegan entrepreneurs who want to make a living at it—I mean, just look at Hampton Creek or all the kick-ass vegan restaurants that we have now—but I think we are stronger as a group because we care so deeply.

Another big strength is the growing number of influential people who are either embracing a vegan diet or helping to back it. People like Russell Simmons, Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Steve Wynn, and Biz Stone, not to mention many, many professional athletes. Bill Gates has famously said the future of meat is vegan. I am not a believer in lauding celebrity vegans, with a few exceptions—too many of them make headlines for going back to consuming animals—but those who stick with it, especially for ethical reasons, also help the cause.

Ultimately, though, I think the single biggest strength is the everyday vegan activist. Countless people who may never have the privilege of being interviewed for your blog, but who are constantly and cheerfully spreading the message by bringing vegan cookies to school or work, wearing animal rights buttons and shirts, leafleting at college campuses, sharing plant-based recipes with their family and friends, writing letters to editors, or hosting vegan potlucks. These are the people who make the vegan movement so wonderful.

5. What do you think are our biggest hindrances to getting the word out effectively?

Well, having just sung the praises of the vegan movement, I have to confess that I think we’re weakened by in-fighting within the movement. We are our own biggest obstacle, and it seems to get worse every year. Groups criticize other groups for how they spread the vegan message, for example. And we waste time and energy calling out people for not being “vegan enough.” As a result, we often send the false message that veganism is about purity, and we turn off potential vegans. But going vegan is not a pledge of perfection; it’s a promise to try your best.

6. All of us need a “why vegan” elevator pitch. We’d love to hear yours.

“Our diet is learned behavior. We learn to love some animals and to consider others food. Look at it this way: Put a small child in a room with a kitten, a rabbit, a pig, a chicken, and a puppy, and she is going to pet all of them—she will not want to eat them. All animals feel pain and want to live, and if you wouldn’t harm the animals you live with now or grew up with, why support the killing of other animals for a fleeting gustatory pleasure? Being consistent with your ethics is as easy as going vegan! And being vegan has gotten so much easier than it once was. Well, this is my floor. Good chatting with you. If you have any questions, you’ll find me at markhawthorne.com.”

7. Who are the people and what are the books, films, websites and organizations that have had the greatest influence on your veganism and your continuing evolution?

In addition to the novel The Razor’s Edge and the two films that have been adapted from it (my favorite is the one starring Bill Murray), I was deeply influenced by Diet for a New America by John Robbins and TheSexual Politics of Meat by Carol Adams.

Soon after I went vegan I saw Bruce Friedrich give a presentation, and he was so articulate talking about veganism and animal rights issues. He made a big impression on me and helped me recognize that as activists we can argue our position and still be nice. Well, usually. I would also to listen to Erik Marcus’s podcast, which taught me a lot about factory farming practices. More recently, I am realizing the importance of true intersectionality in our movement, so I’ve learned much from such activists as pattrice jones, Breeze Harper, and of course my wife, lauren Ornelas.

8. Burn-out is so common among vegans: what do you do to unwind, recharge and inspire yourself?

Thank you for asking this. This is one issue we as activists don’t talk about enough, which is why I devoted an entire chapter to burnout in Striking at the Roots. When I interviewed activists for that book, a few of them told me, “I never get stressed; the animals are too important!” Frankly, I worry about these people. Your psyche cannot take in upsetting images or text and not be affected by it somehow, and with social media, we’re exposed to it more and more.

We are all subject to stress, and if we’re going to be in this long-term, we have to be good to ourselves. Basic self-care is the key: get enough rest, eat well, and get plenty of exercise. Also, find things you like to do outside the movement. I love to read (literature, history, anything by Bill Bryson) and watch movies. When I’m feeling stressed, you’ll find me next to lauren, sipping an adult beverage and laughing at a silly movie or TV show, like Psych or Mystery Science Theater 3000. I also believe it’s important to take real vacations once in a while, disconnected from social media and even the news, if possible. I’m so thankful that lauren shares my love of travel.

9. What is the issue nearest and dearest to your heart that you would like others to know more about?

In addition to animal rights in general, I have a really big, fuzzy soft spot for rabbits. They are exploited for research, fashion, food, entertainment, and the pet trade. I have shared my home and vegetable crisper with many rabbits, and they are incredibly special beings. In addition to advocating for their adoption from shelters and rescue groups, I am trying to spread the word about bunnies being killed for their flesh. Whole Foods recently began selling rabbits, and I would be thrilled if every Whole Foods shopper reading this would ask their store not to sell bunny meat. And then ask their family and friends to go into their local store and do the same. I’m not saying that rabbits are more deserving of protection than chickens or cows or pigs or fishes or any other animals. We shouldn’t be eating anyone. But the last thing Whole Foods needs is yet another animal to kill, and the company is a trendsetter in the food industry; if Whole Foods is successful at creating a demand for bunny meat, other markets will follow. People can find more information about this campaign at Rabbit Advocacy Network and Rabbit.org.

10. Please finish this sentence: “To me, being vegan is...”

“Compassion in action.”

 Thank you, Mark!

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