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When "Lefty" Advocacy Organizations Sell Out

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Image from Twitter User mellogrrl65, from the documentary Cowspiracy
Image from Twitter User mellogrrl65, from the documentary Cowspiracy
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Several years ago, when I was a more naive vegan than I am now, I applied for a job at large animal welfare organization, for a position that involved being a sort of liaison between that organization and the animal agriculture industry. I felt that I was well qualified: after all, I was a vegan with a Ph.D. in Business Administration. My understanding was that the position was about convincing industry to use more humane practices in their treatment of animals.

I was surprised, however, when it came to the interview with human resources. The representative kept asking me about my experience in marketing. Now, as a business school graduate, I certainly knew what marketing was. And I kept thinking about one of my Organizational Behavior faculty members complaining about the definition of the term marketing becoming so over-reaching, that an academic article asked "Is Science Marketing?" Nevertheless, I really understood the position to be about advocacy, more than marketing, so I kept answering in those terms - the HR specialist was obviously not happy with my answers. Needless to say, I didn't get the job.

Now that I've become more educated about veganism, and more skeptical about the "animal welfare" industry, I'm glad I didn't get the job. I owe a lot of that education to a podcast I listen to regularly: Go Vegan Radio with Bob Linden. Bob and his regular guest, animal rights law professor Gary L. Francione, find themselves quite at odds with much of what they call the "animal welfare" movement. They see them as - at best, lowering their standards - and at worst, selling out completely the idea of veganism. Linden often complains of the squeamishness about even using the word "vegan" in many public appeals by these organizations. Francione likens such terms as "cage free" and "free range" to making slavery a little less brutal, or rape a little less violent. It's still a lousy way for the animals to live, and they all still die. (In fact, "cage free " chickens don't necessarily have much more space to move than caged chickens: they can still have their beaks cut without anesthesia to stop them from attacking each other, and male chicks are still discarded in often the most inhumane manner, simply because they can't be used by the industry. And of course, all animals are killed once their production decreases.)

In short, the argument made every week on Go Vegan Radio, is that any exploitation of animals is wrong; if you believe that animals have any rights at all, then the only truly moral response to that belief is to go vegan. Over time, however, the evidence has moved beyond the idea that animal welfare organizations don't go far enough, to a more cynical finding of their being in bed - financially - with big animal agriculture, while playing on people's needs to assuage their guilt over animal consumption.

In one case, that I had to see to believe - and my veg friends didn't believe until I showed them - HSUS (The Humane Society of the United States) and PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) appear on the website of a particular chicken producer, praising it for implementing "humane" standards of killing their animals.

Francione also points to his disappointment with the man who is supposed to be the father of the animal rights movement - Peter Singer - as being quick to reassure people that eating animal products is OK. (This came as a shock to my veg friends, as well.)

Suddenly, my "marketing" job interview question made a lot more sense. But my "innocence" wasn't done being shattered when it came to "lefty" advocacy organizations. When I watched the movie Cowspiracy, I realized that the environmental organizations I have trusted over the years, were also bowing to monied interests. In this documentary, we see that - despite the fact that major world organizations have declaredanimal agriculture to be the greatest contributor to global warming - few environmental organizations focus on that factor. At one point in the film, diet is dismissed as "behavior," despite the fact that conserving water and energy are behavioral changes we are often asked to make by those same organizations.

The media has grabbed onto this comfortable, slow, approach to climate change, as well. A recent articleon CNN's website purported to argue that the call to "eat less meat" for the environment (God forbid, all animal products should be avoided; even though the methane from cows exert a far greater global warming effect than carbon dioxide, whether they come from beef cattle or dairy cattle) is "wrong on the politics" despite being correct on the science. But, despite the article's title, the author merely argues that people are lazy about changing their lifestyle habits, so we have to wait for government to force change. This, however, doesn't explain why we've all been urged to conserve energy by both government and environmental entities, but not to change our eating habits. It also doesn't explain why science should be ignored in this case. Finally, it ignores the fact that the structural changes needed to change our energy infrastructure may take more time than we have, a point also made by Cowspiracy.

Another case in point was the recent roundtable discussion on the public radio show "Interfaith Voices." Perhaps, in an age where members of Congress bring snowballs to counter the findings of 97% of the scientific community, it is not surprising, but the discussion centered on a celebration of Pope Francis' recent Encyclical on climate, with a general feel-good agreement on the existence of climate change. However, one of the panelists in that discussion - Rev. Sally Bingham of Interfaith Power and Light - also appeared on Bob Linden's show - and the feeling was not quite as good. Surprisingly, she had seen Cowspiracy, but she pushed back hard on Bob

Linden's exploration of its conclusions. She accused Linden of using scare tactics. As the leader of an impressive collection of congregations advocating on behalf of climate change, I was surprised when she told the story of being excited about veganism after seeing the documentary, until she went to an event where she was served meat. This venerable leader was suddenly helpless to turn the meal down - and in a move I found surprisingly insensitive for a religious leader - she announced to her 30-plus-year-vegan-activist-host that "it was delicious!" It was an awkward exchange; I came away from the show more depressed about the planet than ever.

Liberals are used to collusion between media, government, and corporate interests. But animal welfare and environmental organizations?

Perhaps, however, we can take solace in recent upheavals that many of us might not have expected as soon as this year: the Supreme Court's ruling on same-sex marriage, the increasing number of states legalizing medical and/or recreational marijuana, the bringing down of the Confederate flag in South Carolina. Some of these changes were brought about by generational shifts in attitude. Others were brought about by a horrific act that shattered our comfortable silence. What will it take to save the animals, the environment, and ourselves?

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Amy Fried applies her Ph.D. in Organizational Behavior to writing and activism on church-state separation, feminism, reproductive rights, corruption, media and veganism.

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