Wednesday, December 24, 2014

10 Questions: Vegan Rockstar Edition with Mark Hawthorne


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”

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

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

“Compassion in action.”

 Thank you, Mark!

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

My Sixth Annual Disgruntled Vegan Alphabet


Being vegan is awesome. I know that. You know that. (Well, you should.) As we know, though, just because we know that something is awesome, it doesn’t mean that the world around us shares this view. Because animal consumption is part of the miasma of disconnection that swirls around us all, most are unable to see it for what it is. Thus, I present to you my compilation of complaints and crankiness as one steaming platter of snarly ‘tude every year. This is my sixth annual airing of grievances, and while I am a little concerned about what I will do with the dreaded letter X in 2015, I have no doubt that people will continue to harsh my good vibes. Does this mean that I think being vegan is a burden? No, it does not: being vegan is fabulous, the best decision I ever made, one that I am grateful for each day. Could non-vegans stand to be less annoying in 2015? Yes. Yes, they could.

A is for Another flaky “former vegan” celebrity just went on a talk show and is now on the paleo bandwagon so could we please stop already with the celebrity worship? Pretty please? It never ends well.

B is for “But what about the Inuit? But what about the Native Americans? But what about the lions? But what about the microscopic insects you kill? But what about soy? But what about eating humane meat? But I’m part Italian. But eating meat is how I honor my ancestors. But I was raised eating meat. But I give a blessing. But I give thanks. But my guru said it was okay. But I need the protein. But I am allergic to soy, wheat, all grains, all fruits and all vegetables except for celery. But I need the iron. But I just eat a little meat. But I don’t eat red meat. But I only support the best farms. But…”

C is for Cough in front of the wrong person and it is incontrovertible proof that I have a vegan-induced nutritional deficiency.

D is for Delusion, because apparently there is a just and compassionate way to needlessly slaughter other sensitive beings as long as you have an unlimited supply of it.

E is for the Eerie silence that happens whenever I get stopped by a Greenpeace canvasser or the Sierra Club calls and I ask them about their organization’s public position on eating animals.

F is for For once, could I either opt out of the Secret Santa exchange at work or get someone who doesn’t give me a basket of alpaca milk soaps from her brother-in-law’s farm?

G is for Gotcha moments, and, no, you didn’t “get me” with your inquiry about what my shoes or coat are made of but try again, sport, because this endless game of pin-the-tail-on-the-hypocrite never gets old or predictable.

H is for Har-har-har, writing People Eating Tasty Animals in the middle of a debate never fails to make an original and devastating counter-argument. Touché! How could anyone ever recover from such a salient point?

I is for Ick, no, I really don’t miss eating corpses. Do I look like Hannibal Lecter or something? Fava beans and a nice chianti, though, those would be fine.

J is for that Junk science video you posted about “plants feeling pain.” If this is more persuasive to you than, I don’t know, the lack of a central nervous system and an evolutionary incentive for pain reception and you ignore the fact that far more plants are consumed when eating a diet that includes animals, I am going to have to question if you are really sincere about your convictions.

K is for karma because sometimes that is all we can hope for in life and we have all heard about her general disposition.

L is for Logical Fallacies because whether were are talking about a strawman argument (“Vegans hate people and only care about animals!”), the slippery slope argument (“If we stop eating animals, they will take over the world!”) the tu quoque approach (“How can you talk about animal suffering when you are stepping on bugs, hmm?”) and an anecdote (“My cousin was vegan for two weeks and she almost died from a protein deficiency!”), these are all examples of the logical fallacies people who want to continue eating animals will wrap themselves in like a warm blanket. A blanket with a bunch of holes in it nonetheless.

M is for the Massive meltdown that happens when a vegan asks her affluent grass-fed, organic paleo cousin how many worlds we’d need in order to sustain the world’s population with his way of eating.

N is for the Namaste-spouting New Agers who try to justify eating animals and are so self-involved as to claim that “judgments” are worse than unnecessary violence and destroying the planet. Altogether now: om…

O is for Okay, do you honestly believe that vegans are pushing their views on you? Have you looked at the world through the lens of someone who doesn’t think that animals are “food” lately? Have you tried to look at the world through the lens of a being who is born and raised solely for the purpose of being eaten lately?

P is for Paranoia, as in, “I said soy milk, right? Because if my coffee has cow’s milk in it I will be really upset and disgusted. Okay, wait, I see you’ve charged me extra because apparently destroying our planet is not enough for animal product consumers, now they should be able to get what they want without any penalties at all and when is a vegan coffee shop finally going to open around here??? So, anyway, how do I know the barista didn’t make a mistake?”

Q is for having exceeded my annual Quota of weird looks and passive-aggressive remarks about my meatless roast at my family’s Thanksgiving dinner within five minutes of being there. Because family

R is for Really, I don’t want to hear about how much you love animals but vegans “just take it too far” because, you know, this is kind of idiotic if you think about it without your ego getting in the way.  

S is for being Self-righteous because it’s better than being self-wrongteous.

T is for Turducken because what kind of twisted, Caligula-minded sadist invented this grotesquery?

U is for the Universal sign of warm weather, which means that when I can finally open my windows for a few months, the smell of charred, tortured flesh filling the air greets me. Yay.

V is for getting Verklempt at the Vicarious thrill we enjoy when one of our protégés goes off and becomes an awesome little vegan agitator in his or her own right. Fly, little bird. Fly! Oh, wait. This was supposed to be complaining. Okay, V is for Vasectomy because, please, 98% of humanity, let’s look into it. Snip, snip, done.

W is for Wings as in do you know that people actually sit around and eat a bird’s severed limbs and then dump the bones in a bowl and, um, tofu is gross? Oooookay, then.

X is for the Xenophobes who think that Asian cultures that eat dogs are barbaric while they themselves eat dead chickens and cows. Um, what???

Y is for the boiled Yellow squash plate vegans are served at our cousin’s wedding that no amount of salt, pepper, denial or wishful thinking will be able to remedy. This is why an emergency nutrition bar should always be in the glove compartment.

Z is for the Zany situations that turn your life into a tragicomedy that will make for an excellent screenplay for a film that roughly two percent of the population might be willing to see one day.

Until next time!

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

10 Questions: Vegan Rockstar Edition with Mayim Bialik

I don’t know MayimBialik in person and I am not even all that familiar with her contributions to popular culture because, apparently, I live under a rock but still, still I know she is fabulous. Hordes of ‘90s kids grew up with Mayim as the floppy-hatted title character and star of Blossom, and, more recently, are enjoying her as the ascerbic Dr. Amy Farrah Fowler on The Big Bang Theory (hey, I did a little research) but in addition to these two cultural landmarks, she earned a PhD in neuroscience (as one does), had a couple of babies, went vegan, wrote a popular cookbook
, and generally made the rest of us feel like a bunch of low-life slackers. It would almost make you resent Mayim if she weren’t so busy actively making the world a better place.

My sense is that Mayim is that friend who levels with you, isn’t too proud to be silly and inspires you to be your best. Oh, and she’ll make you a killer bowl of vegan matzo ball soup that will melt all your troubles away, too. Mayim is that friend we could all use more of in the world. I am so delighted for her willingness to talk, the technologies that allowed us to connect and her confidence about sharing her gifts with the world. Thanks for all you do, Mayim!

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 the kind of young person who loved animals and always felt conflict about eating them. It wasn't until I got to college, though, that I was able to act on these feelings and become a vegetarian. It's hard to imagine but in the ‘80s and ‘90s, there were very few options for vegetarianism, so it was not at all easy to eat vegetarian. I cut out pretty much all dairy in college after repeated sinus infections and have not had a sinus infection since. Many people clearly have a dairy allergy but we walk around thinking it's normal to have those kind of sicknesses and symptoms. After my first son was born, he was sensitive to any dairy through breastmilk, so I cut it out completely and cut out all eggs after my second son was born. I have, therefore, been completely vegan just over seven years.

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?

I think the health benefits and the impact on the environment are important things that complement very nicely with a desire not to harm animals. When I read the Jonathan Safran Foer book, Eating Animals, that was what struck me the most: that your health and the environment are as affected by eating animals as the animals are.

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

Humor and straightforwardness combined together. There is no need to try and sugarcoat the realities of the world we live in. And there is nothing wrong with people being uncomfortable with the choices they have made. My intention is never to make people uncomfortable, but sometimes speaking simply and bluntly is enough to show people the reality of their situation.

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

The expansion of restaurant choices has been tremendous. The addition of veggie and vegan options into school lunches and even chain restaurants has also been tremendous.

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

I think a lot of organizations use gory or graphic imagery, which sometimes turns people off. Also, plain old apathy is still an issue.

6. All of us need a "why vegan" elevator pitch. We'd love to hear yours.

It costs more to store the animals for feeding them to people than it would be to give food away. The environment is damaged by how much meat we have to eat to keep up with the supply. And most people simply don't know what real nutrition is. The government and Dairy & Meat Lobby are basically controlling what we eat in America. Those are my main points.

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?

Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer, PETA, the Humane Society, the documentary, "Fat, Sick, and Nearly Dead," the documentary "The Future of Food,"and the documentary "Food, Inc."

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

Getting back to basic foods and healthy foods always makes me feel better, as opposed to so much of the fun vegan food I sometimes eat too much of.

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

Veganism is pretty high on that list so you guys are helping me do that.

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

To me, being vegan is a way of making the world better, one meal at a time.

Thank you, Mayim!

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Of Geese and Our Endless Pursuit of Formation...


This time of year, I get to watch a lot of geese getting into their famous “V” formation as the frost and snow starts to fall down on those of us who are hopelessly anchored-down fools. My son’s school is close to a fairytale-like woods and river and in the late spring, I saw these same geese as fuzzy yellow-and-brown hatchlings wobbling in a cluster together, following their mothers in the tall reedy grasses of the banks. By now, they have grown into the sleek, big, proud birds I watch honking with confidence as they head to warmer weather for the winter. Watching them against the backdrop of the grey sky on their migratory paths, I always have to stop and watch, even if makes me a little late to pick up my son. He understands because he loves to watch flying geese, too. The geese who are already in formation are a meditative, peaceful sight, a rare majestic sky display in our busy world, but the ones who are actively getting into the V are the ones who really inspire me. As they flap their muscular wings, some fall behind in their row, some move ahead, they swerve through and surf the air currents as a group, and then, gracefully, they get organized into their famous formation. I feel a sense of profound relief every time, of things being right in the world, at least at that moment.

There is a very logical and pragmatic reason behind this specific formation: the aerodynamic positioning lets the geese get more bang for their collective buck, allowing for their range to be maximized while effort, and thus fatigue, are significantly minimized. Except for the lead bird, who is rotated in and out, they all enjoy reduced drag as well as benefit from what is called “upwash,” which helps to carry the weight they are responsible for keeping aloft. I watch these birds seemingly effortlessly form their distinct Vs in the October and November skies and I’m both impressed by their intuitive precision as well as secretly envious. From my perspective as a vegan and a longtime activist, I can’t help but wish that we could be more like geese. Why can’t we get organized to get the maximum benefit?

In the vegan movement, as was true with the feminist and the anti-war movements I was involved with from my teens on, there are always those voices from within who call for us to become more unified in order to most easily reach the bigger goal, presumably one that we share. The problem is that we do not necessarily share the same overarching goal and, even more significant, it just is not going to happen. Human nature is oppositional to that precise orderliness and singularity of vision within large groups, the kind that allows flying geese to turn on a dime and gracefully adjust their formation according to ever-shifting factors – fatigue, wind currents, the overall strength of the group and who knows what else – that are keenly felt and communicated to one another. As much as I might admire and envy the kind of elegantly efficient structure and selfless cooperation I see in a formation of geese, I also realize that it is a pipe dream for us to aspire to as a movement. It simply isn’t happening and nor should it.

The fact of it is that vegans are not all flying to a pond at a nice gated community in Georgia or Florida but even if we were, we would still find reasons to fight and disagree. Should we turn left or right or stay more or less center? How high? How low? Should we go faster or maintain a slow-but-steady pace? Should we stop for a rest? How can we be so selfish and weak as to think of resting when there is so much to do??? As much as I might like to fantasize about being part of a flying V, pointed like a determined, wind-resistant arrow toward the end goal, I know that this is just not human nature. It’s a pleasant, gauzy distraction of a daydream but that is all that it is.

I don’t think that it’s in anyone’s best interest to continually peck away at one another over pettiness, but, being human, we will disagree about what is petty. Rather than trying to get everyone on board with a singular approach and vision, perhaps the best path is to share yours with the world and find those with whom you can work together on your path. I think we need to quit this essentially futile quest for cohesion of thought, voice and action and just seek out those we can easily get into formation with toward shared goals. If we stand around bickering and squabbling in pursuit of something that is unachievable, before we know it, the fall will have turned into winter and we will be forced to remain stuck in one place. 

It’s early December so ice is starting to form on the river near my son’s school, floating pieces that are slowly starting to freeze into a solid surface of ice. Some geese left at the first sign of cold, some waited until heavier frosts and still others are going to tough out the winter here. To the best of my knowledge, they don’t argue about routes or strategies or unity, they don’t mock those who left earlier as wimps and they don’t disparage those who remain as old fogies. The geese just do what they need to do. I think we should do the same and stop beating the drum beat of unity, no matter how temping it might be. We need to find our own way to fly and go the distance.