Jonathan Balcombe is a science-minded doctor with a big heart for other animals. As an accomplished author of four books that explore different aspects of animal behavior, sentience and the ethical implications of what it means to use those with rich interior lives for our purposes, Jonathan’s research causes us to stop and think about these beings we so often bulldoze over without a second thought. With his latest book, What A Fish Knows: The Inner Lives of our Underwater Cousins, Jonathan turns his attention to those most misunderstood and disregarded beings, the more than 30,000 species of fishes who swim in our rivers and lakes, ponds and oceans. Do they think? Do they feel? How do we know? From courtship to community, cooperation to punishment, fishes live lives that are rich in experiences that we usually only attribute to humans and other primates. What A Fish Knows explores the latest research in we understand about the diversity of experience and emotion, awareness and intelligence of these oft-ignored, little understood beings.
Jonathan Balcombe is currently Director of Animal Sentience with the Humane Society Institute for Science and Policy and has a PhD in ethology from the University of Tennessee. He’s also a longtime vegan and an all-around pretty fabulous guy. I am honored to feature Jonathan today as this week’s Vegan Rock Star!
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 am not aware of any epiphany that led me down the path towards veganism. I can only say that from my earliest memory I had a deep compassion for all living creatures, and I would get upset when other children deliberately stomped on insects to crush them.
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?
Had I had an adult vegan role model—someone knowledgeable about animals and as kind to them as I was—then I probably would have become vegan a lot sooner. As it was, my parents were always caring about animals, and we evolved towards lifestyle reforms at about the same time: in the mid-1980s.
3. What have you found to be the most effective way to communicate your message as a vegan? For example, humor, passion, images, etc.?
First: living my example. Second: my passion for animals. I also strive for normalcy; I want to know that vegans are regular people.
4. What do you think are the biggest strengths of the vegan movement?
Health and vitality. Who doesn’t want to live longer and healthier?!
5. What do you think are our biggest hindrances to getting the word out effectively?
Inertia. Specifically, the retarding effects of customs that people cling to. When it comes to food, we are like cats: we loathe change. I believe the perceived sacrifice in taste is the #1 barrier to a transition to plant-based eating. From a purely gustatory standpoint, we are already at a point where animal flesh can be replaced by equally delicious vegan food. Folks just don’t know it yet! And if people adopted it in larger numbers, the economy of scale would soon bring prices down well below current meat prices.
6. All of us need a “why vegan” elevator pitch. We’d love to hear yours.
I became vegan because I do not and will not fund the abuses that routinely take place in the production of meat and dairy products. It is my way of thumbing my nose at corporations that hurt my friends the animals. My choices also benefit my personal health and longevity, and planetary health (because eating low on the food chain prevents climate change). I love living the most-good-least-harm lifestyle.
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?
I have been most inspired by the writings of philosophers Tom Regan and Peter Singer, and those of Jane Goodall.
8. Burn-out is so common among vegans: what do you do to unwind, recharge and inspire yourself?
I bike in the fresh air, I hike in nature, I play Bach on my piano, and I eat great food.
9. What is the issue nearest and dearest to your heart that you would like others to know more about?
Human overpopulation! OMG, how asleep are humans that we are not taking decisive action now to curb our growth. How stupid are we that the paradigm of “growth is good” remains unchallenged. How long do we have to sit in traffic gridlock, witness wars over resources, and read about biodiversity loss before we come to our senses and start electing policymakers who want to take action on this issue?
10. Please finish this sentence: “To me, being vegan is...”
The greatest affirmation of life.