The anti-vegan strategist, Tobias Leenaert, recorded a recent podcast with a fan of his, Michael Dello-lacovo. These are some of my thoughts about it and related issues.
Dello-lacovo has recently attended the "reducetarian summit" and written a review of The Reducetarian Solution, a book edited my Brian Kateman, who likes to mock vegans and veganism, much like Leenaert does. Indeed, Kateman makes the extraordinary claim that he's a carnivore. Kateman needs to consult Dr. Milton Mills. Leenaert spoke at the reducetarian summit as a representative of his latest gravy train, "Pro-Veg."
Tobias Leenaert is extremely poor and gets quite panicky when questioned about his position - see HERE, and gets utterly floored if someone makes an animal rights point - see HERE. This happened again in the recent podcast, even though the questioning could not have been more supportive and gentle.
Michael Dello-lacovo had said in a previous podcast about reducetarianism that he had some misgivings that the reducetarian approach may encourage people to just switch from one animal product to another and, depending on the circumstances ("red meat" to eating chickens, or hens' eggs, for example), that may increase animal suffering.
Dello-lacovo brought this up with Leenaert. This is just part of Leenaert's blundering answer (and this is where the content warning above applies).
- “Even if there is an increase in chicken or fish consumption, what we might see, for instance, is that, like, if I tell somebody, like, reduce, I’m imagining that they could, for instance, replace a certain quantity of beef by chicken, and eat more chicken, but a certain quantity of beef they could also, if our system works, are going to replace it by vegetarian, plant based dish – vegan dish, whatever – and the fact that they do that is so important. This is the first step. So, even if there’s a fist temporary increase in chicken or fish consumption, if there’s also – if the gate is open to trying vegetarian, vegan, products or dishes, then this is a very important fact and, in the second phase, this temporary increase of chicken and fish could be annihilated. So you could imagine, for instance, if a child grows up with parents who are reducetarians and who may eat even more chicken and fish but who put vegetarian and vegan dishes on the menu now and then, that child would, erm - there would be more change that that child gets to know vegetarian dishes and evolve further and further, and so – I mean, it’s really important to look at concrete results but sometimes maybe we pick too short-term results and we need to look a bit in the longer term.”
This response raises some big questions. For example, what is Leenaert's time frame here? Well, we do know the answer to that - it's very LONG. He's on record talking about slowness; that he's in favour "of taking this thing very gradually." This should not be a shock. Leenaert is a careerist in it for the long haul. He makes his living from the continued use of other animals, and it doesn't look like he's going to put himself out of a job anytime soon.
Notice, in the response above, that he talks about "the second phase." This raises all sorts of bizarre issues about Leenaert and his approach(es). He uses a two phase model. Phase one is now - a pre-vegan phase in which it is best to minimise the use of words like "vegan," "animal rights," and "speciesism." He doesn't know how many years, decades, centuries, phase one will last - he just thinks that phase one is the time when animal advocates should ease up big time on the whole "be vegan" routine. People just ain't ready for that sort of radicalism, and to hell with Donald Watson's idea of deliberately using the word to "ripen" people to what it means.
This begs a huge question. If phase one isn't the time to talk about veganism, and phase one is now, and phase one is likely to last a long time yet, why call yourself The Vegan Strategist? Wouldn't that be the absolutely wrong and silly name to adopt in these endless pre-vegan times? Surely The Reducetarian Strategist, or The Vegetarian Strategist would be better (as well as more accurate)?
Of course, Leenaert would say that his end game is veganism. Is it? I'm not so sure. For example, he argues that he wants veganism to be redefined as being "about food" only - and even then it should allow for flexibility and exceptions. He has a whole bunch of reasons - and a whole host of times - when he tells vegans that they should willingly eat other animals. An eat other animals for veganism position!
In the podcast, Leenaert declares
- I’m not saying that we should avoid talking about veganism but I’m wondering, like, if we talk about veganism, how should we define veganism. I’m in favour of defining it in a way, or maintaining a concept that is just a bit less rigid than what most people do, and I think that would greatly benefit the numbers of vegans that we get. I argue that 100% consistency is unproductive and is redundant – it’s not necessary.
So, even though he's more likely to say that there are some times when it may be appropriate to talk about veganism, he means his "veganism" that is not veganism. A new animal-eating veganism - because vegans eating other animals is "effective" and "strategic."
Well, there's another term for all that too: NOT VEGAN.
The current definition of veganism is too big and too radical for Leenaert. This is deeply ironic to me, given the numbers of present-day vegans who seem determined to betray the originators of their own vegan social movement and slim down the meaning of veganism, much as Leenaert wants to do. Careful of the company you keep I say.
He's a bit sneaky in this podcast. He knows redefining veganism is pretty controversial, so he suggests that the bar should be lowered from 100% veganism to 99%. Anyone who has seen his presentations knows that he wants to lower the bar much lower than that!
You may or may not be surprised to learn that Tobias Leenaert is utterly baffled when animal advocates want to tell the truth - especially about their vegan aspirations. In contrast, he says that his approach is based on "adaptiveness."
- Adaptiveness. You adapt your communication style and your communication – your ask – you adapt it to the people you have in front of you, according to what you think works and in some cases that can be a “go vegan” approach, in other cases it is a reducetarian approach.
Leenaert says adaptiveness means not being "dogmatic."
- The reducetarian approach…is to advocate for the reduction of animal products rather than something like veganism or vegetarianism...A dogmatic approach would say that we always have to advocate for veganism. To me, that’s dogma. To me, again, what matters is results.
Leenaert, very much like Melanie Joy on this, is really only at ease mentioning veganism if he knows that the audience is full of vegans, at "animal rights conferences," for example.
Dello-lacovo is a consequentialist like Leenaert, so he's interested in adaptiveness and comes back to the concept. He asks Leenaert for examples. Oh, no! Those bloody difficult questions again, I thought you were a fan! Leenaert's first example doesn't even attempt to answer the question, or make much sense.
- A million dollars for an advertising campaign – what would the message be? You’ve no idea what your audience will be like. You have to get, like, the lowest common denominator – basing yourself on research, and there probably you’re going to see that most people care more about health, environment maybe, and that might be a more interesting message when you are broadcasting to a million people to say something about health and environment, or about reduction.
Yeah, couldn't do something like the amazing Go Vegan World campaign - grassroots led from an animal sanctuary in Ireland - that gives a clear vegan message always. It's getting to the stage, isn't it, when one wonders when Leenaert thinks the public can ever hear the word vegan without fainting.
This is the second example of adaptiveness.
- Talking to a politician or a “decision maker.” It is usually the health or the environmental arguments that are more relevant to them, and more socially relevant. They are bleeding hearts people who care about the animals necessarily, they will care about what their electorate cares about. In many cases, there are officials about health and environment, but not about animal welfare, for instance.
He says there's no point in talking to a Minister of the Environment about animal rights. Yeah, well there's not much point in talking to any politician about animal rights (by which I mean rights-based animal rights) until the culture shifts away from how deeply speciesist it is now.
Of course, with talk of politicians, we know just how "adaptive" Leenaert can be - bendy over backwards even. Leenaert was once told by a politician waiving money in his face that vegans are "crazies." Did palms up - eyes down Leenaert challenge that? NO, of course he didn't. He "adapted" to it - he used the slur to construct the myth of the "crazy vegan," and spread it around along with his colleague, Sebastian Joy (they are both founders of the latest Pro-Veg gravy train).
In case you are wondering - but I doubt that you are by now - "crazy vegans" are consistent vegan who, according to Leenaert and Joy, scream and shout in people's faces while frantically waiving their arms about in the street.
Leenaert likes to claim that vegans owe reducetarians a very big dept. He claims that the "vegan market" is driven by reducetarians – that the number of vegan choices available is down to reducetarians, and not vegans themselves. Maybe in the future, it will be vegans who drive the market but – for now – it is the reducers, he claims.
All vegan restaurants and all “vegan producers,” he states, are primarily catering for reducers and flexitarians. There is not a large enough vegan market, or as he tellingly puts it: “they could not live off the vegans alone.”
I'm not sure if I care whether this is true of not, although I certainly know that the pioneering vegan companies like Plamil had vegans in mind when they started producing, for example, plant milks.
This raises another problem for Leenaert. He seems to think that there needs to be a reducetarian movement in order for people to reduce. Ironically, Dello-lacovo says in his previous podcast about reducetarianism, mentioned above, that he generally disagrees with virtually everything Gary Francione says, yet acknowledges that Francione's position accepts and expects people to reduce. Francione expresses this sentiment as the "Vegan 1-2-3" sometimes, and it's part of the modern idea of not saying "go vegetarian first," but be as vegan as possible. In this blog entry, I write.
- So, instead of the flawed “conventional wisdom” of vegetarianism first, Francione recommends his “Vegan 1-2-3 Plan,” which introduces a three-stage move toward veganism: “The person goes vegan for breakfast for some period of time (a few weeks, a month). She sees how easy it is and how delicious and satisfying a vegan breakfast is. She then goes vegan for lunch for some period of time, and then for dinner, and then she’s vegan.”
Dello-lacovo is much more fair minded, nuanced, thoughtful and, frankly, smarter than Leenaert. He makes the following important point about how abolitionist incrementalism may be more effective than reducetarianism.
Dello-lacovo says, for example, that first getting people to commit to one vegan meal means that, whenever that is, they are focused on veganism - they are thinking about veganism and what veganism means, not on the fact that, for now, they are merely "reducing." This is an excellent point because it gets people much more quickly - immediately - to where Leenaert claims he wants them to be (however many centuries it takes), which is thinking about animal ethics and justice.
There's one point in the podcast that I thought I would strongly agree with Leenaert. Didn't turn out that way though. Leenaert suggests that, in addition to a "go vegan for the animals movement," a "reduce for any reason"... ask is needed.
There was a pause before the word "ask," and, for a second I thought Leenaert was going to say "movement." If he had, I would have been more happy and I'd suggest straight away that Leenaert does not join (or remain in) the "go vegan for the animals movement" (because he doesn't fit in) and join the reducetarian movement. He should leave the vegans alone.
I'm drawn back to the oddity that "The Vegan Strategist" - really the anti-vegan strategist - is constantly talking to vegans. Why? Why try to get vegans to stand for positions they don't believe in? Why not get non-vegans to do the non-vegan work? Especially when he says this is a pre-vegan phase in the first place.
Are we once again back to money? The majority of conferences around the world are those run by and attended by vegans. How many vegetarian conferences are there nowadays? One annual reducetarian one? Now, that ain't enough, is it?
LEENAERT: LEAVE THE VEGANS ALONE.