Creating a Vegan World – Book Review & Interview with Author Tobias Leenaert

Tobias Leenhaert How to Create a Vegan World

Pictured: Author Tobias Leenhaert

How do we save the most animals possible? Should we use health and environmental arguments or only moral outreach? Is asking people to cut back on meat betraying the vegan philosophy? What steps can we take to make veganism be more inclusive? These are a few of the many complex questions explored in Tobias Leenaert’s newly published How to Create a Vegan World: A Pragmatic Approach.

Tobias Leenaert is a longtime speaker, trainer, and strategist. He is also the co-founder and former director of the Belgian organization EVA (Ethical Vegetarian Alternative), the first vegetarian/vegan organization to receive structural funding from a national government. Under Tobias’ management, EVA launched a successful campaign that resulted with the city of Ghent becoming the first city ever to officially support a weekly vegetarian day. Tobias gives animal advocacy trainings worldwide together with Melanie Joy, for the Center of Effective Vegan Advocacy (CEVA). He is also co-founder of ProVeg International, a new international pro-vegan food awareness organization with the mission to reduce the global consumption of animals by 50 percent by the year 2040. Tobias lives in Ghent, Belgium, with his partner, two dogs, and six cats. He blogs at www.veganstrategist.org and welcomes your thoughts at tobias@veganstrategist.org.

In Animal Allies, our volunteers have 6 essential agreements, the first being: “We focus on research-based, effective activism to save the most animals possible.” As a result, Tobias’ work on his blog The Vegan Strategist has been of immense use to us several times. With the extra space afforded in a book format, Leenaert is able to present a macroscopic view of effective vegan activism and develop a narrative through an analogy he developed: Veganville (a town on the top of a mountain – refer to image later in article). The result is a book that is accessible to all and very practical. It begins with a snapshot of the movement at this point in time by contextualizing where our movement is in terms of adoption and how that must affect our strategies. This highlights the pragmatic approach – while one argument/method may be morally right, it may not be effective until veganism is much more mainstream and accepted. It then explores what our call to action should be and what arguments we should be making. It finishes up with how we can support people on their journey to Veganville as well as improving retention once they are there. Creating a Vegan World excels at concisely articulating the overall approaches we should be taking to be effective at reducing harm. Leenaert logically explores arguments and counterarguments in approaches and justifies the various conclusions he makes. The result is a book that any new vegan, or any vegan organisation, can read as a general manifesto for how to become stronger advocates for animals. It is also a perfect companion to Veganomics as this book focuses on how to turn the data into action.

“Impact is not about speaking our truth. If we’re asked at dinner why we’re vegan and we launch into the gruesome suffering of animals, we may be speaking the truth—and our truth—but we may be alienating some people at the table.”

- - Excerpt from How to Create a Vegan World, Tobias Leenaert

After reading his book, which we highly recommend reading (now on Amazon and will be available in Singapore Library later this year) author Tobias Leenaert was gracious enough to give us an interview to explore the pragmatic approach.

1. We all have a vegan origin story – what is yours?
I remember, when I was a little kid, thinking about our dog that was lying cozily near the fireplace, and about the cow that was standing in the rain across the street. And I wondered: what is the relevant difference between these two creatures that justifies I pet the one and eat the other? I couldn’t find any good answer, and concluded that I should be a vegetarian. It took me ten years to actually become one though, because I loved the taste of meat. I finally went vegan right during my university years, and wrote my master’s thesis about the human-animal relationship. After that, I became so fascinated with the topic of meat eating and animal rights that I didn’t want to do anything else professionally.

2. What prompted you to write this book and what will people gain from reading it?
In 2000 I founded an organization, EVA (Ethical Vegetarian Alternative), which I led for fifteen years. In that time, I learned a lot about campaigning and talking to all kinds of stakeholders, from the people in the street to top government officials and CEO’s. When I left EVA after some sort of “leadership burnout”, I started to focus on the vegans, activists and changemakers themselves. I discovered that my experience and insights were useful for them. So I started my blog, www.veganstrategist.org, and out of that, and my talks all over the world, came my book. The issue that I see is that people following ideological systems, of which veganism is one, often tend to cease thinking out of the box, because the ideology (dogma in the worst case) determines and limits our thinking, and thus our effectiveness. I want to help people break through that, so we can walk new roads and continue to improve and speed up the evolution towards a better world for animals (and humans).

“Most of us, however, do eat meat, and it’s a lot harder to condemn a behavior you’re indulging or complicit in. In other words, where you stand depends on where you sit. As long as we eat meat, we are steakholders. Our dependence on meat is so great that it almost prohibits us from thinking rationally about it. It makes us think, as it were, with our stomachs.”

- - Excerpt from How to Create a Vegan World, Tobias Leenaert

3. How should pragmatists respond to idealists effectively?
To give some context: I suggest that activists (and anyone really) can be positioned on a spectrum from idealism to pragmatism. To oversimplify it a bit: idealists are very concerned about doing the right thing, while pragmatists are very concerned about results. For instance, idealists might not approve of Meatless Monday, because to them it’s not right: it implicitly seems to condone people eating meat on the other six days of the week. Someone more on the pragmatic end of the spectrum would say: so what, as long as it gets us closer to our goal (though it’s true that idealists may also not believe that it actually works).

It would be good if there we could have more empathy with where other activists come from, and if we could start by being more charitable to people with other opinions. We need to first of all believe that all of our intentions are good, that we have the best interests of the animals at heart. That alone would help eliminate a lot of infighting.

4. You refer to Dietician Virginia Messina in your book and her reference to the importance of communicating detailed nutritional information. However, could this also make veganism seem complicated? What do you think is the right balance? Is there a guide you find particularly good that you would refer people to?
Good question. It’s about striking a balance, I guess. Also, the information can be offered in several phases. In a short pamphlet about veganism, there is no room for all the nutritional points of attention anyway. But there can be a reference to a webpage or book that has more detailed information. That way, no one is deterred from the beginning, but people do get the important info that they need. The same can be done on websites: brief information in one section, linking to more extensive information. Also, there could be a different newsletter or publication for people who are already vegetarian or vegan.

“Yet, although moral outrage has played a significant role in many epochal moments in history, vegans are too few in number for our collective indignation to have a substantial impact. This reality may change someday, but right now we should be careful with our anger. Rage shouldn’t be seen as a sign of one’s commitment to the cause, as a prime source of energy and passion, or the fuel that keeps us going.”

- - Excerpt from How to Create a Vegan World, Tobias Leenaert

5. We have found our stepwise graphic used here in Singapore effective – what do you think if it? Any ways it could be made more effective?

I love how it presents our lifestyle or food habits as non binary, but rather as a scale from more harm to less harm, and that it encourages and doesn’t judge the small steps. And it’s very pretty. A downside may be that all the different words may make the whole look a bit overly complex.

6. A few times you mention that the mere presence of a vegan at a dinner table can cause people to feel guilty / increase dissonance. Does this mean it is better to avoid business meetings during mealtimes, or that vegans should avoid dinner parties with nonvegan hosts?
It wouldn’t be good if we had to avoid all that. I think each of those occasions can be an opportunity to put other people at ease, to help them not feel bad (if we notice that they feel bad). We can show them that we are not the people who will make them feel more guilty. We can show them that with us they have space to talk and think about these things, without being judged. We can do that by being pleasant and taking everything not too seriously. And of course it helps a lot if the food that we get is good.

7. Funding is usually an issue – especially to pay activists well. You note that people should be able to have comfortable lives doing good. Where should vegan organisations focus to get larger amounts of funding to facilitate this?
It’s more sustainable if your life is comfortable. But also, I want to tell people that it’s not wrong or sinful to make a living from doing good. On the contrary: it allows you to spend all or most of your time on that good cause, since you don’t need to spend many hours a day making money with a normal job anymore.

There’s more money than ever going into our movement these days, and part of the reason is that as the number of people who cares about these issues increases, some of those are bound to be wealthy and be able to fund stuff. Moreover, as organizations are getting more effective and are able to demonstrate their effectiveness, big donors are more likely to open their wallets. I’d focus on doing a good job, showing that you do a good job with clear metrics, and seek contact with people who are in power and/or have money and convince them of your case.

Another possibility is to start a business rather than a nonprofit.

“Impact is not about winning an argument. Even if the other person tells us we’re right, we haven’t necessarily had a positive effect. A saying from sales is “win an argument, lose a customer.” When the other person feels they’ve lost, they may feel even less sympathetic toward us or our cause.”

- - Excerpt from How to Create a Vegan World, Tobias Leenaert

8. Recently the group at veganflag.org has developed a symbol it proposes all vegan groups adopt globally. Do you think this is a good idea?
I can see good and less good sides. In general, identification as a vegan, or with the vegan “tribe”, has good and bad sides too. On the one hand it helps people stick to it when they are in a group, on the other hand it can increase hostility toward the outgroup. A flag could help create more of a common identity, which is good for the in-group, but may alienate the outgroup.

I’d like to add that I appreciate the efforts and the thinking of the people who made it, and I was a bit sad to see so many hostile comments about it. Also, it shows again how complex the world is today, and how even the colors of a flag can apparently be problematic.

“Although I understand it’s hard to take a positive view of humans given our wholesale violence against other species, I nonetheless believe being positive toward our fellow beings is more productive for everyone concerned. I happen to believe that most of us would choose the more humane option if that choice was made easy enough. We can regret that kindness needs to be convenient before most of us will adopt it, but we shouldn’t be cynical.”

- - Excerpt from How to Create a Vegan World, Tobias Leenaert

Creating a Vegan World is now on Amazon (Print and Kindle available) and Singapore Library has agreed to stock the book after our request – look for it later this year. Tobias also co-founded the Center for Effective Vegan Advocacy (CEVA) – stay tuned to Animal Allies social media as in the future we hope to invite CEVA to Singapore to do a workshop.