An Activist's Life

Apr 05

USA Restaurant Chains Must Disclose Calories on Menus

One little-known but important law that’s been passed along with the U.S. health care bill: restaurants with more than twenty locations will have to post calorie counts of all items on their menus. This change promises to discourage sales of high calorie coffee drinks as much as it harms sales of Big Macs.

The big losers here are going to be fatty cheese and red meat items. Expect people to be ordering more chicken and plant-based foods instead.

The law won’t take effect for a year, but I’d expect many chains to begin updating their menus right away. Link.

May 22

Erik’s Guide to College

When I was a little kid, Tuesday nights were the nights my dad didn’t come home until very late. He’d depart his office job and go straight to the local drug store, where he’d work as the nighttime pharmacist until closing. He was making this sacrifice so that one day he could afford to send me to college.

It was all a product of his depression-era Jewish childhood that taught that the key to a successful adulthood is to graduate from college. My father wanted the very best for me, and if that meant taking a second job to pay for my college, that’s what he was going to do.

But there was one problem with this plan; a fly in the proverbial ointment if you will. Even as a small child, I really and truly didn’t give a fuck. Somewhere around the third grade, I started getting assigned homework. And I decided that it was bad enough I was stuck at school for six hours a day: I’d be damned if I’d spend additional time at night doing schoolwork.

So I limped along at school, eventually graduating high school with grade point average barely above 2.0. The whole thing was a charade. On graduation day I went up on the stage, and the dean handed me a diploma and shook my hand just like everyone else. If he had the slightest integrity he’d have kneed me in the balls and booted me off the stage. But whatever: it was time for college.

So, I got into one of those colleges that Barrons’ lists as “Competitive,” which is their euphemism for a school that’s willing to take anyone with a pulse.

In contrast to public school, college is awesome. Since you could drop out at any time, colleges know that if they make things even half as unpleasant as high school, everyone would leave.

As I see it, speaking broadly, there are three different college experiences you can have.

If I had any sense at all I’d have gone to the local community college and gotten some sort of half-assed plumbing or electrician certification training certificate. But whatever—-literature it was going to be.

I had no clue about what I’d do when I graduated. But I do vividly remember the career advice I received from a guy named Jerry. I met Jerry during a summer job I held halfway through college. He worked down the hall in accounting, and when he heard I was studying literature, he suggested I get a head start and begin training how to operate a Slurpee machine, since I was obviously going to spend my career working in a 7-11.

Jerry was a complete dickhead and he couldn’t have been more mistaken. Turns out that just about any writing-oriented liberal arts degree, including literature, is surprisingly valuable: not because of anything special about the degree, but because of the execrable job that high schools and colleges do of teaching the most fundamental writing skills.

Basically, four year humanity degrees represent the one group of people that can reliably churn out clean and readable paragraphs. The shocker for me during my college summer jobs was discovering that I was surrounded by 35-year-old businessmen, wearing suits and ties, who had the writing skills of a fourth grader.

It turns out that if you can write reasonably well, there are job opportunities at just about any company. You could be a technical writer, you could do in-house publications, or you could elbow your way into the marketing department. Writing is a ridiculously basic skill, but it’s in surprisingly short supply at most companies. Jerry had his head up his ass.

If all these potential jobs aren’t enough, there’s one more opportunity that’s probably the highest paid of the bunch. You could, to quote Bill Hicks, start sucking satan’s cock. It’s easy: just go to work doing public relations for the most evil companies you can find.

In my last blog entry we looked at factory farming CEOs and saw what they specialize in: fucking over animals, workers, entire communities, and the environment in order to churn out meat, milk, and eggs at the lowest possible cost. Credit where credit is due: these CEOs are great at their work. But they’re entirely unable to defend their practices to the public. So they throw money at the problem by bringing on a bunch of public relations assholes. These are people who, just like me, took the easy way out in college and got some liberal arts degree. But then, upon graduating, they decided to go for the cash by whoring their writing services out to the worst people in the world.

Now that I’ve finished this digression about education and vocations, we’ll take a look at the PR side of animal agriculture: how it works and where it can be attacked.

May 21

Interlude — Meet the CEOs

If we’re going to get anywhere protecting farmed animals, it’s vital to have some understanding of the people we’re up against.

Factory farming has taken over farmed animal production for a number of reasons, the most important of which is that the top firms are run by world-class businesspeople.  These people have reached leadership positions by demonstrating the skills to be ruthlessly efficient.

Let me briefly describe how factory farming CEOs generate these efficiencies.

The key to factory farming success is to create a system that generates meat, milk, and eggs at the lowest possible costs, while making society and taxpayers shoulder numerous negative externalities.  Let’s look at some of these externalities:

Meat, dairy products, and eggs are comparatively cheap largely because factory farms pay next to nothing for many of the negative externalities they generate.  Society and taxpayers pay the bulk of these costs.

Meanwhile, the top factory farming firms thrive and grow ever-larger because they manage to outsource the dirty work, and much of the monetary risk associated with their business, to local farmers.  It works like this: a top factory farm will dangle a fat contract for raising pigs or chickens.  To get such a contract, a farmer can go hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt, building pig or chicken sheds on his land.

Once the sheds are built and the contract is signed, the farmer can actually do quite well financially —- as long as demand for meat stays high.  But this demand is erratic, and whenever it heads south, the individual farmer can get knee-capped.

In essence, large growers like Smithfield and Tyson are virtual farms — with everything, especially risk, being outsourced to smaller players.  They’ll gladly sacrifice some day-to-day by contracting with individual farmers to grow their animals, because, by doing so, they’ve offloaded their risk.  When bad times come, it’s the contractors, rather than the big meat companies, that get creamed.

Notice that everything I’ve talked about here is about the business side of animal agriculture, and how it thrives by externalizing costs to society and offloading risk to individual farmers.  That’s what today’s mega-factory farming CEOs are great at.  These people are incredibly good at winning the game of squeezing the most possible money out of large-scale factory farming operations.

But what about the growing threat that animal protection advocates pose to this industry?  Here we have a topic that’s completely outside of the expertise of top agribusiness CEOs.  So in my next blog entry, we’ll look at how CEOs respond to this threat.

Here’s where things get interesting: as talented as these CEOs are at making tough financial decisions, it turns out they could not be more inept at understanding and neutralizing the threat posed by activists.

May 18

Why We’re Gong to Win, Part One: Us

As I’ve already written, I’m far from being the animal protection movement’s most effective or most skilled activist.  But I do think my position within the movement perhaps offers me a deeper perspective on our prospects than most activists have.  Our prospects are incredible —- and we’re about to see the animal protection movement go on an unbelievable tear.  Let me tell you what I’m seeing that makes me so sure of this.

Because of my book writing and blogging, I’ve got a lot of people who follow my work.  And because of the nature of Facebook and Twitter, I have the chance to get a reliable sense of who these people are.  With almost no effort on my part, I’ve been able to get a fairly detailed understanding of the kind of people who are serious about animal protection.  Let me tell you what I’ve learned about these people, and why it’s such a big deal.

Every day, people begin following me through Facebook and Twitter.  And anytime I get a notification that I’ve gained another follower, I click through to check that person out.  On Facebook, I can usually see at a glance where these people went to school —- plus I can learn about their careers, their accomplishments, and their interests.  Sure, once in a while a new follower turns out to be a total freak.  But more often than not the person has an incredible background and at least one highly-developed talent.

With each follow notification I receive from Facebook or Twitter, my understanding of the people who make up the animal protection movement deepens.  I don’t think most people within the movement are yet attuned to the incredible pool of talent and ability we possess.  But let me tell you, the animal protection movement is in really, really good shape.

We’re a movement that consists predominantly of people with much-better-than-average educations, demanding careers, and often impressive financial resources.  In short, we’re collectively made up of people who are in an unusually strong position to push through social change.

The only thing that’s holding us back is that many of our best potential activists haven’t yet figured out how to become involved in a serious way.  But I think mass involvement is inevitable.

The thing to understand is that animal protection isn’t a football game: we’re not lining up our eleven best activists against the eleven people who can best defend factory farming.  Nope, what our movement is in the process of setting up is a good old-fashioned trouncing —- which is what will happen once we get tens of thousands of caring and highly skilled people off the sidelines to start advancing the interests of farmed animals.

Right now our numbers are quietly growing, day by day.  My intention is to help inspire and prepare people who’ve decided to become active, but haven’t yet figured out what to do.

If you’re someone who wants to become more involved, know that you’ve got some incredible company.  I hope the blogging I do here, as well as the resources I’ll be recommending, provide the information you need to step up your commitment and your ability to make a difference.

May 15

“Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible.” — His Holiness, the Dalai Lama

Who Wants to be an Animal Millionaire?

One of the most important things I could possibly accomplish is to help other animal activists think in larger terms, and develop more substantial ambitions.  If you’re going to take action for animals, you might as well choose tasks that will affect as many animals as possible.

We’ve got ten billion animals raised and slaughtered each year in the United States, and only a few thousand activists working on their behalf.  That means that if we’re going to do more than scratch the surface of the problem, we need as many activists as possible to develop large ambitions.  Getting clear about your ambitions is one of the most important parts of activism, since it’s really hard to make a huge difference without first setting appropriate goals.

So let me offer a concept that can help you think in larger terms.  When it comes to money, there’s a simple yardstick that people use to measure success: you know you’re hitting the big time when you become a millionaire.

Well, it turns out that the millionaire concept is equally usefully to aspiring activists: just as anyone can decide to accumulate a million dollars, any activist can aspire to save a million animals.

I know at first blush the idea of saving so many animals may sound impossible.  But the fact is that there are dozens and dozens of activists out there who’ve done it, and you can too.  I’ve got a number of friends who are multimillionaires when it comes to keeping animals from harm.

There’s Stewart Solomon, for instance, a father and schoolteacher who makes time every week to visit college campuses and pass out Vegan Outreach literature.  There’s Mahi Klosterhalfen, an activist who is convincing supermarkets and universities across Germany to stop purchasing eggs from battery henhouses.  There’s Jennifer Fearing, who uses her training as an economist to evaluate and exploit weaknesses in America’s factory farming industry.

These are all people who are helping animals on an enormous scale; they’ve undoubtedly each blown well past the “millionaire” mark when it comes to helping animals.  But what’s surprising is how achievable it is to become this sort of millionaire.  All you need to do is to get about 500 young people to switch to a vegetarian or vegan diet.  Since each 20-year-old will likely eat another 2000 chickens and other farmed animals over the course of his or her life, that works out to about a million animals for every 500 young people who change their diets.

I’ll be writing a lot in the future about different ways you can reach the million-animal mark.  But for now, I just hope you’ll be excited about setting some big personal goals for protecting animals.

How many animals would you like to save?  Why not add a zero to the end of that number?

May 14

On (Not) Cashing In

I’ve decided to not attempt, for the moment, to derive some income from this tumblelog. I just removed the Amazon affiliate links from the dental floss and Sonicare mentions in my previous post. I don’t want to create the impression that I have a financial interest in mentioning a given product here. At some point, if this tumblelog takes off, I’ll need to think about deriving some revenue from my work here. But I won’t worry about that problem until after I’ve gained a good-sized audience.

In other words, I’m moving ahead with the important stuff knowing I can figure the rest out later.  The important thing, for now, is to create.

The Foundation of All Activism

Now that we’ve gotten most of the preliminaries out of the way, it’s now time to start addressing activism. So let’s start at the very beginning. This post will address the fundamental, basic technique upon which all animal protection work rests. Please move your chairs a bit closer, and listen carefully while I pass on this crucial bit of knowledge. Ready?

Dental floss. You’ve got to floss at least twice a day.

Now I know you’re probably thinking I’m mad to say that dental floss is the foundation of all animal protection work. But have you already forgotten Maria Ramos?

The key to all animal rights activism is to make sure your own personal needs are met before you begin devoting your time to others. There’s no need for martyrs in this movement. And when it comes to taking care of your personal needs, this task, insanely enough, starts with low-tech dental floss.

Most people still don’t get how crucial this stuff is to your overall health. Dentistry isn’t exactly a haven for great comedy, but here is the best dental joke of all time:

The nice thing about dental floss is you only need to floss the teeth you want to keep.

Here’s what happens if you don’t floss daily. Gradually pockets of plaque start building up beneath your gum line, and over time your gums develop these pockets where they no longer cling to your teeth. You can’t feel this happening but one day you’ll go to the dentist and the hygienist’s voice will suddenly take a tone of concern. She’ll call in the dentist and start sticking this little needle tool under each tooth, announcing out loud how many millimeters it penetrates, while the dentist writes down each number. She’ll read off two numbers for each tooth in your mouth; the higher the number the more fucked you are for that particular tooth.

This ultimately happens to everyone who doesn’t floss. And at that point, you may be too screwed to avoid gum surgery, even if you suddenly get religious about flossing.

If that’s not enough reason to floss, consider the fact that the bacterial load that exists between the teeth of people who don’t floss ends up stressing the body’s immune system in a bunch of ways, and can lead to all sorts of unexpected and serious health consequences including cardiovascular problems. I wish I was making this up.

Anyway, shit, do you think I want to spend my time writing about dental floss? Do you think I’m not acutely aware that devoting a lengthy blog entry to this subject so early on in a blog about activism creates the impression that I must be emotionally unhinged?

So let me end here with my recommendations. Glide Dental Floss is the best there is. The stuff is a rip-off when sold at stores, but Costco sells six-packs for just $13. Top-quality dental floss and plenty of it is one of my rare extravagances —- I not only use the best, but I always reel out several more inches than I really need, because nothing’s more irritating than not having quite enough floss to wrap around your fingers.

And, if you can afford it, definitely pick up a Sonicare Power Toothbrush. They do a vastly better job of removing plaque at the gum line than any standard toothbrush can do. I use mine at least twice a day, along with flossing, and it makes all the difference in the world.

“There are ten billion farmed animals getting their throats cut each year in the United States, and, what, perhaps a few thousand people who are truly serious about taking action? That means that each of us who take on this work have a duty to become as effective as we can possibly be.”

Thesis Statements

For some reason I don’t care enough to think about, the term “thesis statement” used to piss me off back in high school.

The gist of a thesis statement is that you’re summing up in a sentence or two an argument that you intend to prove over the course of your paper.  The way writing is typically taught is that you’re encouraged to come up with forced to provide your thesis statement in your opening paragraph, and then spend the remainder of your essay attempting to concoct a convincing argument that backs up this statement.

In my case, back in high school, I’d typically choose a thesis I didn’t give a flying fuck about, and so I’d spend the remainder of my paper coloring in an argument I had no stake in, whether pro or con.  Invariably, the teacher cared even less about my thesis and supporting arguments than I did, and would give me a B or a C depending on whether he got laid the night before.

Anyway, back to thesis statements. In actual practice, I think writing teachers have it backwards.  I think what really happens is that you write for a while and, in time, the writing you do uncovers your thesis.  Writing may be a way to entertain or inform readers, but for the writer it’s an act of exploration.  You don’t have a firm idea of what you’re saying until you actually try to say it.

This is all my way of saying that when I began this tumblelog, I had no clear idea what my thesis was, but now I think I have something in mind.  I can’t go back and inject my thesis into paragraph one of tumblelog entry #1, so I’m stuck doing it here.  That is to say: this collection of writing, in whatever form it ultimately takes, is aimed toward people who care about animal cruelty, want to prevent it in some way, and want to get a whole lot better at this work.

So perhaps that’s why I felt this urgency to dive into writing this without dickering around researching blogging platforms and theses and whatnot.  There’s a whole lot I haven’t thought through but one thing I’m certain of is that I’ve got a lot of interesting and useful things to share with aspiring, novice, and intermediate activists.  I’m pretty sure there are at least ten or twenty people who will read this work and double—-perhaps even quintuple—-their effectiveness.  Maybe one of them is you.

And if that’s all I accomplish from several months of work, I’d consider it time well spent.  So, while it’s not in the first paragraph, there’s your belated thesis for you.