How to Create a Vegan World: A Pragmatic Approach

Written by Tobias Leenaert

Summary & Review by Beth Quick

I recently finished Tobias Leenaert’s provocative, challenging, and inspiring book How to Create a Vegan World: A Pragmatic Approach. (Lantern Books, 2017). Leenaert runs the Center for Effective Vegan Advocacy, and is cofounder of ProVeg International. He also founded and directed the Belgian organization EVA (Ethical Vegetarian Alternative.) His aim, as the title suggests, is to lay out a plan for creating a vegan world, in which all or at least most people adopt a vegan diet and reject consumption of animals. Leenaert’s basic thesis is that vegans should be as practical as possible when trying to get people to “move to Veganville,” a metaphor he uses throughout the book. I took so many notes on my rough draft of this review that I finally had to just save those as a separate document, lest I leave with you with a ten page write-up that might dissuade you from picking up this book! (This review is still too long, I know!) I found a lot in Leenaert’s work worth serious discussion in vegan community if indeed our aim is to work towards a vegan world.

As the book’s subtitle indicates, Leenaert lays out a very practical, strategic plan for increasing the number of people on their way to “Veganville.” He asserts that vegans should focus more on a message of reducing the consumption and use of animal products than on the “Go vegan!” message, and he makes his case chapter by chapter. Some of his major arguments: 1) Rather than worrying about the reasons people choose to go vegan and favoring a moral/ethical motivation over all others, we should accept that people become vegan or reduce animal consumption with a variety of original motivations and then adopt moral/ethical concern for animals after becoming vegan. 2) Vegans should support, encourage, and develop partnerships with individuals, businesses, and organizations that aren’t strictly vegan, but that are part of making more, better, cheaper, and more available alternatives to animal products. 3) Rather than focusing on a strict definition of what “counts” as vegan and creating an “in-group,” vegans should relax concepts and definition to build a more inclusive and hospitable community. (2-3) Vegans need a call to action that is credible, doable, and reduces animal suffering and death as much as possible. (38-42)

Many vegans, Leenaert argues, want non-vegans to both change their behavior (stop using animal products) and change their attitude (abstain because of compassion for animals.) Leenaert calls this a “double demand.” Both results are important, but the double demand is not the most effective strategy. (11-12) Meat reducers are critical for an eventual vegan world, Leenaert writes. (33) Because meat reducers out number vegans so significantly, meat reducers actually change the system faster than vegans. Meat reducers are collectively saving more animal lives than vegans are. (35) Meat reducers are also more likely than those who don’t reduce to eventually go vegetarian or vegan, and in fact, studies show that they are more likely to stay veg over time than those who make a more abrupt change. Reducers are also spread out in society, and can in turn influence many others. 

Leenart acknowledges that some people respond well to a very black and white “go vegan” message: younger audiences, especially teenagers, academics and intellectuals who are compelled by animal rights philosophy, and sometimes folks in one-on-one conversations with a preexisting interest in veganism. (33-34) But for most others, a nuanced conversation that focuses an introductory message of reducing the use of animal products is more effective. He examines several objections to the “reducetarian” call to action, making strong arguments against each point. (46-53) 

Leenart devotes significant time to examining how people develop compassion for animals and the desire to abstain from using animal products. We might assume that a person cares about animals, and as a result, they decide to eating animals or using animal-based products. We think, Leenaert says, that “attitude is what shapes behavior.” However, studies show the link between attitude and behavior is weak. There’s a gap. People experience cognitive dissonance: they know something about eating animals is wrong, but they are eating animals anyway. To resolve this conflict, people have to align their behaviors and values. Some do this by changing their behavior to match their values: they give up eating animals. Most, though, try to change their beliefs to match behavior, telling themselves things like “animales die a quick death,” “animals are raised for meat,” “we need meat,” or “animals don’t feel as much as we do.” (61-62) People engage in “distancing devices” to keep themselves emotionally disconnected from knowledge about animal suffering and buse. 

So, changed beliefs don’t always result in changed behavior. However, changed behavior often results in changed beliefs! The late Yale psychologist Robert Abelson wrote, “We are very well trained and very good at finding reasons for what we do, but not very good at doing what we find reasons for.” (62) A classic example? A new law passes which has only moderate public support, but nonetheless forces a widespread change in behavior. A few years down the road, support for the law is much broader, because the behavior has changed the belief. (Views on seatbelt laws follow this pattern.) 

The takeaway? Vegan scan and should use non-moral arguments to help folks change behavior related to using animals, trusting moral change will happen later. (69) Moral concern for animals is important, but it doesn’t have to be the starting point. (70) A good strategy is to tag pro-animals messages onto values that people already have, rather than telling them what values they should have. Vegans should also focus on fostering an environment that facilitates changes in behavior: working to lower the price of vegan products, to increase the convenience and accessibility of vegan items, etc. (76) Conversely, vegans can also advocate to make it harder to produce and consume nonvegan foods, advocating for legal changes in the food industry, for example. (79)

Leenaert argues that even companies aren’t immune to behaviors changing attitudes, and so we should cheer when nonvegan companies produce vegan-friendly products. Once these companies invest in plant-based products, even though profit might be the motive, the result will be another company more likely to go to bat for vegan products on the market. (86-86) Even companies like Tyson, the author says, can be allies rather than enemies. These companies have a huge market share, a large budget, and many resources. They’re “agnostic” about their products as long as they have a market and make profit. Another example: dairy companies that started including plant-based milks in their portfolio have acted with less opposition to plant-based products as a whole once they had a share of the vegan-friendly market. (89-90) Leenaert also spends time talking about “clean meat,” which “could be the technological revolution that precedes a moral transformations, and urging vegans to “distinguish between principled objections … and practical or situational objections” to GMOs. (93-94) Personally, when it comes to “clean meat,” I’d need to do a lot more study and reflection before being ready to advocate for such developments. 

A hodge-podge of other strategy recommendations includes “influencing the influencers” by thinking about how we communicate a pro-veg message to environmental and health-focused NGOs, hospitals and health-care professionals, company cafeterias, etc. (97-98) Leenaert says we need to think about education – from training chefs to reaching out to children and young students. He also writes about “choice architecture” – “nudging” that makes it easier for us to choose pro-animal actions. For example, what if airlines served meatless meals unless you requested otherwise? Some might still request a meal with meat, but most people would go with the default option. Again, how can we make the “good thing the easy thing”? (104)

Leenaert encourages vegans to develop more effective communication skills. Vegans communicate when we post on social media, by how we behave in restaurants, through what we cook, in how we shop, through what we read and watch, and even through our general attitude. (114) Our objective is to make an impact for animals. It is not, he insists, about speaking our truth. It’s better to think about what inspires people to change. Impact is not about being right. When being right is our priority, we miss opportunities to learn from others. Impact is not about winning arguments. Think of the saying from sales, “Win an argument, lose a customer.” Impact is about actual change. The driving question should not be “Am I right?” but “Does this work [to create change]?” (116-117)

Vegans need to be authentically interested in learning about the people with whom we’re communicating. Leenaert uses an acronym: YANYA – You Are Not Your Audience. He reminds readers that what was effective to help us go veg, especially if we’ve been “early adopters” of veganism is not necessarily the most effective strategy to persuade “late majority” folks to change. Appealing to the existing values of late majority folks will be more useful. How can we walk in the shoes of those we’re trying to influence? (120-123)

One of the difficult recommendations Leenart makes? He says we have to listen. He writes, “We believe that whatever our audience will say or object to [about veganism], we’ve heard it all before, and there’s precious little need to listen to them. Consequently, it’s all too simple for us to be self-centered and self-focused, and to lose touch with our audience.” (125-126) He quotes Stephen Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People: “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” (126) I know I feel like I answer the same sometimes frustrating questions about veganism again and again. Some questions are asked from true curiosity, but others are asked with less pure motivations. How can I be a better listener so that I can be a better advocate for animals? Leenaert suggests that we should try not to appear to be too different and disconnected from our audience. Instead, try to meet them where they are, and highlight any shared interests and values. (127) One study revealed that even “the mere presence of a vegetarian” heightens the cognitive dissonance of a person eating animal flesh. (129) Guilt and anxiety are high. To work for change, we should tread softly. People go to great lengths to avoid seeing ourselves in a negative light, “including refusing to support a cause we might otherwise believe in.” If we talk about our own imperfections and struggles in our vegan journey, we are more relatable. (130) When people think about going veg, fear often prevents action. People fear that they’ll never enjoy food as much as they do now, that they’ll be unhealthy, that they’ll be unwelcome at parties or family events, that they’ll be mocked, that they’ll humiliated by vegans when they don’t measure up or when they mess up, or that they will lose part of their identity, their culture, their heritage. (133) We need to listen to these fears, show empathy, and share how we’ve wrestled with and sometimes conquered these same fears. 

Finally, Leenaert advocates strongly for a more inclusive veganism. Vegans are dealing with dual aims when we think about our vegan identity. We both want to help others journey to “Veganville,” but we also want to build an identity for ourselves, belong to a group that brings us support and community and co-advocates in our own veganism. (142-143) Striking a balance in those aims is difficult. Leenaert says we must make sure that claiming a vegan identity doesn’t have “an astronomically high admission” price. He encourages vegans to be mindful not to derogate or alienate outsiders. Leenaert also worries that vegans worry too much about the vegan “label” losing value and meaning. He shares Donald and Dorothy Watson’s original definition of veganism: “A way of living which seeks to exclude, as far as possible and practical, all exploitation of animals.” That definition of veganism is open, flexible, with room for interpretation. (144-145) Being dogmatic in any sphere can be dangerous, argues Leenaert. A more “elastic” concept of veganism, a fuzzier line between veg and nonveg people will be more effective in moving people toward our position. He also urges caution to vegans who communicate through their actions that “extreme strictness” is required to be vegan. For example, if you go to a restaurant and ask question after question of the wait staff, your nonveg dining companion or your nonveg server might think that veganism is impossible. If your friend makes you vegan lasagna and goes to great lengths to prepare something special for you, but they miss that the noodles contain eggs, and you refuse to accept their gift, they may feel disillusioned about the accessibility of a vegan lifestyle. (149-150) Leenaert shares two compelling quotes: From Vegan Outreach director Jack Norris: “If people tell me they could go vegan except for the cheese, I tell them to go vegan except for the cheese!” (150) And from Henry Spira: “If you ask for all or nothing, you usually end up with nothing.” (151) To do the most good for animals, Leenaert concludes, it is more important to include people in our groups who are on a journey toward becoming vegan than to exclude them because they haven’t yet arrived in Veganville. If we’re worried that we need to “be consistent,” writes Leenaert, “I suggest we aim to be consistent in the first place not with the rules, ideology, and definition, but with the compassion and ambition to reduce suffering, killing, and injustice, which are the values underlying veganism.” (162)

I think Leenaert’s ideas have a lot of merit, and I’ve already been thinking about what I’m communicating to people around me directly and indirectly as a move through the world as a vegan. If I want to do the most good for animals, how can my actions have more impact? I’m curious to hear your thoughts about Leenaert’s strategies too. How do we create a vegan world? We’re a long way from getting everyone to Veganville. I feel hopeful, though, that this book can be one map that shows a way.