Thursday, December 24, 2009

Operation Meat Market: one activist, one mission, and a whole lot of books

Erik Marcus of kindly asked me to share a write-up on my experience giving out copies of his book Meat Market: Animals, Ethics, and Money and on how the book has influenced me as an activist. It's a bit long, but I think you'll find it interesting and hopefully inspiring!

One March evening in 2005, I hopped on my bike and took off across town to conclude an unusual and somewhat life-altering month of journalism for my high school magazine. I carried a notebook in one hand and a mini-recorder in the other; I didn’t want to miss a thing. It was thirty past six when I stepped down into a basement lounge at Stanford University and joined a handful of older students splayed out on a ring of sofas in cozy anticipation. No doubt, a month earlier, I would have felt a stranger among these hardcore animal activists who at the moment were passing around a tray of vegan cookies. Now, however, I felt right at home. In these unfamiliar faces I saw allies in a common cause with shared conviction and shared purpose. As I switched on my recorder and gobbled down a cookie, I recalled the recent and unforeseeable chain of events that had carried me to this new activist mindset and to this basement all the way across town to see a speaker by the name of Erik Marcus.

When I had set out four weeks earlier to chronicle the animal rights cause I didn’t know what I was getting myself into. I began by talking to a student group at my school, but before long, my growing curiosity pushed me to track down all the local animal activists who would put up with the eager questioning of a clumsy but determined adolescent journalist. I talked to a concilperson who told me how her upbringing in the segregated South led her to confront speciesism and to a world-class vegan bodybuilder who boasted that his award-winning frame was 100% plant-powered. The interviews were eye-opening, but still, I was skeptical. I had been vegetarian since I was a young child, so I could sympathize, but veganism struck me as extreme, and becoming a champion for farm animals seemed like a sad misplacement of activist energy.

The turning point came one late night, when I stumbled upon some investigative footage of modern factory farms: a 12 minute glimpse into the hidden lives of today’s farmed animals. The film revealed to me a world of unimaginable suffering and ruthless exploitation where sentient creatures are treated as machines: crowded, confined, drugged, mutilated, and denied so many of their natural behaviors, simply in order to generate the most flesh or fluid in the least amount of time at the lowest cost.

I had been vegetarian for most of my life, but I now realized the eggs and dairy I still consumed daily came from animals that suffered no less than meat animals. I decided to go vegan, because I didn’t want anything to do with an industry that regards feeling and inquisitive animals as disposable commodities. I was also compelled to show others what I had seen, to shine a bright light on this dark and hidden world of suffering. And there was no better way to do this, I figured, than to write a persuasive article that would expose the issue and inspire my readers to effect change.

And it was this mission that landed me this March evening in a roomful of more vegans than I could recall meeting my entire life. Tonight’s speaker was to present on his book entitled Meat Market: Animals, Ethics, and Money. Erik began with a question that took me by surprise: why in the U.S., despite the fast-rising convenience, quality, and abundance of vegetarian foods are people eating more animals year after year and factory farming getting worse by the day in both scope and intensity? He shared his take on this puzzle while mapping out a new path for the farmed animal movement. In a sense, his talk was a disappointment. I had hoped for Erik to cover the ABCs of veganism and recite some fitting facts for my article’s unfamiliar audience. Rather, his presentation was geared toward the experienced animal advocate. So as a journalist, I found his talk practically useless.

Yet as an aspiring activist, I was intrigued. In exchange for the few dollars I could muster up from my then-leather wallet, Erik signed and handed me the 273-page book stamped “Limited Advanced Printing” in blood red. Although I would begin Meat Market after my article was published, reading the book was essentially the next step in the research I had begun for the article. I had uncovered a reality that I could not ignore. I had to dig deeper and find answers. Thankfully, my research would soon take a refreshing turn from horrifying and hopeless to horrifying...but hopeful.

I had become a vegetarian in 2nd grade, and when I went vegan, I saw it as the final step in harmonizing my respect for animals with my everyday actions. Yet half way through Meat Market, I realized that there was one more step to take. No, Erik’s words did not compel me to become a raw foodist or embrace a fruitarian regimen. Rather, Meat Market, played a large part in inspiring and empowering me to become an activist.

Even before I read the book, I had set out to help farmed animals however I could, but I was stuck. I couldn’t think of much to do, aside from not eating them. Meat Market helped me find direction. Through a sharp reflection on our movement’s progress, Erik arrives at fresh and compelling ideas for dismantling farmed animal exploitation. He shares essays from a range of activists, introducing many styles of advocacy. Meat Market showed me just how much power we have to help animals and this is exactly what I needed to see.

The book delivers a remarkably researched and up-to-date account of factory farming that details the everyday sufferings of today’s farmed animals while illuminating the big-picture problems inherent in modern animal agriculture. Erik Marcus writes that “As animal activists, we are only as persuasive as we are informed," and on that account, reading Meat Market at least doubled my effectiveness in personal outreach.

As I was finding myself in more chats with family and friends about why I was vegan, I often cited Meat Market. Interesting as these discussions were, I knew that I was merely touching on the whole matter. I wanted to convey a deeper understanding of the issues and really get people to think. Not knowing what to do, I approached my most trusted advisor in matters of activism: my mother. She didn’t merely find a solution; she made an offer. My birthday was around the corner and she proposed to give me some copies of Meat Market that I could, in turn, give to friends and family. I loved the idea and decided that 12 copies would do the job. However, when we got in contact with Erik, he informed us that he had a box of 40 copies of Meat Market at a huge discount. Now, 40 is a ridiculous number of books, but I wasn't about to turn down the offer. Considering that we had already placed the order on Amazon for the 12 copies, I now had a grand total of 52 copies of Meat Market, or about three times the number of candles on my birthday cake.

So about four years ago, I set out to change the world: one Meat Market at a time.

The effort was a bit too easy at the start. I had had Erik sign 15 copies to friends and family members and these were the first I gave out. While the recipients showed appreciation, a month went by and I didn't hear back from any of them. Another month, and still no response. For some reason, nobody was reading it. With this initial setback, I needed to look no further than Meat Market itself for some key advice. Erik stresses that it's essential to keep a close and critical eye on one’s progress both as an individual and as a collective movement. And this is all too easy to forget. Activism connotes action, marching in one direction and not looking back. There’s little room for reflection. Yet it’s often key to step back, take a look, and think things over. I had thrown myself into this mission without any plan, and it was now time to rethink my approach.

So over a warm Masala Chai I got to thinking. I realized that I didn’t have a game plan, no criteria for deciding who I should give the book to. I knew that the most stubborn of meat eaters and the most seasoned of activists could prosper from Meat Market, but I had to concede that many of them would refuse to read it. I knew this from my own experience. When I was in 7th grade I read Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation, a classic often dubbed the bible of the modern animal protection movement. While I enjoyed the philosophy, I recall skipping nearly everything about farmed animals. I wasn’t ready to read about things that would put my conscience at odds with my everyday food choices.

Meat Market: Animals, Ethics, and Money is no less daunting. Even the title. Let’s face it: for many, the mere attachment of the words “Animals” and “Ethics” is an unpalatable mix. This isn’t because people don’t care about animals. Rather, I think, it’s precisely because they do. Most people are empathetic toward animals, but live in ways that often don’t square with this sensitivity. We may shower our cats or dogs with affection, but at the same time daily sponsor the abuse of farmed animals who are just as intelligent and feeling as our pets. This moral schizophrenia extends beyond our personal lives; it is encoded in our law. Most states exempt farmed animals from coverage under their anti-cruelty statutes. In other words, any standard farming practice is permissible, no matter how cruel it may be. In my state, a pet owner who confined a cat or dog her entire life in a metal crate too small for her to turn around or extend her limbs would be subject to felony charges. At the same time, a large-scale farmer who turns a profit raising thousands of pigs or calves in such conditions is considered a good business owner.

So to start thinking ethically about our treatment of non-humans is to face a dissonance between our beliefs and our actions that is hard to swallow. To be honest, I’m not sure if I would have ventured beyond the title page of Meat Market, had I seen Erik’s talk a month earlier, before I had confronted the issue. From now on, I resolved, I would no longer randomly give out Meat Markets, but offer them to those who I could be near sure would read and thrive from them, people who showed not just general open-mindedness but particular interest in these issues. I would target younger friends who have full lives ahead to apply the reading to their food choices. As I took off to a summer music program, I carried a handful of copies. I wasn’t going to turn everyone vegan, but if I inspired just one or two people to move in that direction, it would be totally worthwhile.

And this is when I must introduce Matthew, whose name is changed here for anonymity and whose character defies a brief account. Matthew arrived a few days into camp and with the look of twice his age, I mistook him for a counselor. Really, he was just 15. Matthew was a big guy with a big mouth, shoulder-length hair, and a joking expression. He appeared chronically sleep-deprived but in good spirit nonetheless. He took out every Japanese horror movie the local library had to offer and loved to replay the most gruesome scenes. His taste in music was no less bizarre. When he wasn’t playing Haydn in his Baroque flute-cello duo “Ruthless Carnage,” he was likely blasting his extensive collection of Wesley Willis. Sure he was a nice fellow, but he wasn't always polite. When he found out I was vegan, he proclaimed the glory of bacon and joked that I must forage plants for dessert. So I was less than excited one day on a bus ride to a blueberry picking farm when Matthew started inquiring into why I’d ever deliberately endure such a “depriving existence” as a vegan. However, as our conversation drew on he began to show some genuine interest. I told him about Meat Market, and he was intrigued. So that night, I gave him a copy and went to bed with pleasant thoughts about blueberries.

Next morning at breakfast though, I noticed Matthew clutching the book by his side, surely ready for return. Perhaps he was disappointed that it wasn’t overtly gruesome or that it wasn’t that radical, I thought to myself. Yet, when he approached me, he explained that he had stayed up almost all night reading and that he couldn’t put the book down. He even expressed shock at what he had read (and shock, I imagine, doesn't come easy for a horror film enthusiast). The rest of the day I noticed him carrying around the book, reading it every so often when he had the chance. This was a sight that meant a lot to me as an activist, to see, simply, that someone else cared enough to take a look.

I haven’t been in contact with Matthew ever since so I don’t know how the read ultimately influenced him. He could be a vegan activist like myself, or continuing to support factory farming at every meal, most likely somewhere in between. In any case, he now has the knowledge to make humane choices and to inform those around him; if he hasn’t made change yet, at least he’s one big step closer to doing so.

While I was left to wonder about Matthew, another camp buddy let me know exactly how the read impacted him. Jonah Rank from Long Island was my closest pal at camp. His pale and scrawny figure concealed an extraordinarily energetic spirit. His musical talents baffled me: he plays at least a dozen instruments and has come out with multiple albums. His dual passion for music and language fused to form "Und Alle Das Jazz," a rambunctious, Google Translator-based-German rendition of "All That Jazz," whose 3-minute performance is more amusing than an entire season of American Idol.

After camp ended, Jonah sent me a blog entry he had written about Meat Market. The book had played a large part in his becoming vegetarian. My simple hope in giving out Meat Markets was to extend some awareness and for the recipients to apply this awareness to the way they live. Jonah, however, had not only done this, but here he was, in turn, passing on this new awareness to so many others.

Though Matthew and Jonah stand out as my most memorable recipients, others have taken the book to heart and adopted more humane eating choices. Handing out books has been deeply rewarding, and I've probably learned just as much as my recipients about effective advocacy. I went in with the idea that I had it all right and simply had to show others the way. Not only is this sort of attitude lofty and self-deceptive, it's also ineffectual. People won’t listen if you’re talking down to them, and chances are, you won’t be listening to them either. I think it’s important for anyone doing outreach to remember that it’s not about perfection but about continual progress, about constantly pushing ourselves forward and helping others along the way as well. We need to remember that veganism is not some sort of moral ideal. As vegans, we still invariably cause harm to animals, the environment, and humanity through our food choices. The question is how to minimize our harm. Taking animal products off our plates is not an endpoint, but only only a step – albeit a big one, I think – toward becoming more humane and responsible consumers.

Finally, as someone who is prone to pessimism, seeing how open-minded and caring most people are when they are introduced to these issues in a friendly and empathetic fashion has made me more hopeful. And taking a broader view of our movement, there really is SO much reason to be optimistic right now. Look around, and you'll see abundant evidence that veganism and consciousess over farmed animal suffering are falling squarely into the mainstream. Last month, for surely the first time in the history of the universe, three vegan-oriented books were simultaneously top 100 bestsellers on Amazon. Vegan outreach volunteers have now handed out 3.5 million leaflets. Every month, farmed animal issues are garnering more and more coverage in all forms of media. In just the past few years we've seen ballot measures accross the country improve the lives of tens of millions of farmed animals by enacting welfare standards that, although far from humane, will alleviate immense suffering. Scientists have recently made great strides with the development of In vitro meat, an invention that could do for farmed animals what the car did for draft horses, without all the pollution. And the farmed animal activist community is beginning to harness the powers of social networking technology to spread their message.

In short, we are making tremendous progress, and this is a phenomenal time to be a voice for farmed animals. Going into 2010, I pledge to double my commitment to advocacy efforts. I hope you'll join me!