Embrace and Encourage: Lessons from Three Decades

Speech, as prepared, for the 2015 San Diego VegFest
Matt Ball, Senior Advisor

Before we open it up for discussion, I want to share a bit of my story with you, as a way to frame some of the lessons I’ve learned about being vegetarian since I first stopped eating animals nearly 30 years ago.


Loved meat, and groovy pants!

Growing up, and then when I went off to college in 1986, I was not even close to being a vegetarian. I loved going out to eat (in my funky pants!). I loved steak and pizza. I didn’t like any vegetables except corn on the cob.

But then, my roommate in college was an older transfer student, two inches taller than me and probably 70 pounds heavier. Fred was an imposing guy. He was also a vegetarian. And of our circle of friends, he decided I was the most likely to change, so he regularly told me about the cruelty of factory farms and industrial slaughterhouses.

Believe me: I did my best to tune him out.


I didn’t want to know anything about what went on. But before the end of the year, I had stopped eating animals. I lived on the cafeteria’s Captain Crunch, and cheese sandwiches on white bread. And french fries — lots of french fries. Not surprisingly, I wasn’t particularly happy. My Mom was sure I was doing permanent harm to my health. I couldn’t really argue.

So I went back to eating meat.

But I was never able to put what was being done to animals completely out of my mind. I had lost the bliss of ignorance.

ideas1The next year, I lived in an apartment, responsible for my own food purchases. One day, I was looking in the mirror and the thought just came to me: “How can I consider myself a good person if I continue to eat animals?”

I had no answer.

I have never eaten meat since.

After that, I joined the local animal rights group. I learned about the reality behind eggs and dairy. But again, I didn’t immediately jump to veganism. I bought free range and amish products — “happy” eggs and dairy, if you will.

Again, I evolved over time. The more vegans I met, the closer I came to being vegan myself. Eventually, I stopped eating all animal products and entered the next stage:


The angry vegan.

As I discuss in the essay, “Letter to a Young Matt” (in TAA):

I had finally, finally come to recognize the brutality that went on behind the scenes. But it seemed almost no one around me cared. Even worse than that, they mocked and attacked me for being vegan! I mean, not only did they support cruelty, but they ridiculed me for not eating animals!

Of course, I had to show them: how ethical I was, how much cruelty I could purge from my life, how far I would go for the animals. Being vegan became my defining characteristic, and I became obsessed with justifying and glorifying veganism (and, thus, of course, myself).


Debates about language, philosophy, and hypotheticals all took on vital importance. I had to take part in any protest that came along: driving long distances, being out in sub-zero weather, getting arrested. I couldn’t “turn my back” on the animals. I was just that dedicated!

Now don’t get me wrong: I don’t blame Young Matt. In the face of what is being done to animals, being angry is entirely justified. Feeling desperate to “do something, do anything” is understandable. And coming up with new arguments, new claims, new chants and slogans and protests … well, it all seemed logical at the time.

I had one more lesson to learn, which I had to learn the hard way.

I finally realized that the irreducible heart of what matters is suffering. Back then, even though I was absolutely sure I knew everything, I really didn’t know anything about suffering. Since then, though, I’ve developed a chronic disease and have experienced times when I thought I was going to die, times when I wished I would die. Back then, I worried about abstractions and words and principles; I argued about exploitation and oppression and liberation. I didn’t take suffering seriously. Now, knowing what suffering really is, and knowing how much there is in the world, all my previous concerns seem, well . . . to put it kindly . . . ridiculous.


I first ended up in the emergency room almost exactly 20 years ago. I then spent months and months bouncing from doctor to doctor. It was only then, once I had first-hand experience with real suffering, that I knew my life’s true calling. Veganism, animal rights, anti-speciesism, definitions, abstractions, arguments — all these are relevant only inasmuch as we use them to actually reduce suffering.

And that’s what I’ve dedicated my life to ever since.

So what are the lessons we can take from my journey?


First, my experience is in keeping with one key fact: the vast majority of people who stop eating animals eventually go back to eating meat. The Humane Research Council’s survey found this to be the case for about 80% of people who go vegetarian (see also Ginny Messina RD’s take).


As advocates, we haven’t had a lot of success since Peter Singer published Animal Liberation in the 1970s. Given this absurd rate of recidivism — 4 out of 5 quitting! — it isn’t surprising that the percentage of vegetarians in this country hasn’t grown in proportion to our efforts.

Clearly, we have a lot to learn if we are to make significant progress. There are two important insights from the HRC study.


First: The data clearly shows the biggest difference between those who are currently vegetarian, compared to those who stopped being vegetarian, is that current vegetarians are motivated by “Animal Protection” — 68% of people who are still veg, vs only 27% of those who went back to eating animals. The people who were motivated primarily for health were the ones who went back to eating animals. So obviously, if we want to help animals, we should give up trying to “trick” people into going veg for health or other forms of self-interest. Rather, we will help animals the most by actively advocating for animals.

Second, the people who go veg the quickest are also more likely to go back to eating animals. I’ve seen this over and over. For example, two close friends of mine went vegan overnight. Now, neither of them are even vegetarian.  On the other hand, people who, like me, slowly evolve to an ethical diet are more likely to keep making compassionate choices.

The take away from this is to embrace and encourage everyone who has ever taken steps to help animals. I was a failed vegetarian. I bought “happy” animal products. I can tell you — if people had screamed at me, attacked me for my failings, the issue in my mind would have changed. I wouldn’t have still been thinking about animals; I would have been focused on the angry, fanatical vegans who were attacking me.


This is backed up by the data on two levels. The first, as referenced in Nick Cooney’s book Veganomics, is that people who buy “humane” meat eat less meat than the average person, and are more likely to go vegetarian.

Related to this is the most important point: the number of animals killed in this country is going down.

Given that reducing the number of animals suffering and dying is the bottom line, it is worth unpacking this good news a bit.


For decades, the number of animals killed in this country skyrocketed. Prompted to “eat healthy,” people replaced red meat with chickens. Since it takes over 200 chickens to provide the same amount of flesh as one cow, the move to “healthy eating” led directly to billions more individuals suffering. Given that chickens are much more intensively raised, the amount of suffering went through the roof!


But since 2006, the number of animals killed in the US has fallen, even as the human population has gone up. Unfortunately, this hasn’t been because of a significant rise in the percentage of vegetarians and vegans. Rather, fewer animals are suffering and dying because of the number of people who are eating fewer animals — meat reducers.

Knowing this reinforces a point made previously: We shouldn’t attack or obsess over people who don’t immediately go veg — those who cut back on meat, who talk about “happy meat.”

Instead, we should embrace — and encourage — every evolutionary step anyone takes to help animals.

My example shows that the path to a compassionate life is often an uneven journey. There are many similar stories. A friend of mine went veg as a teenager, and his brother mocked him relentlessly. That brother?


Paul Shapiro, who later went on to found Compassion Over Killing. He is a member of the Animal Rights Hall of Fame, and one of the most important voices for animals in the country.

In addition to not giving up on anyone, we should also look into what specifically causes people to change their diet in a way that helps animals. In addition to HRC’s survey, the best source of this information is a large study by The Humane League.


Here are two graphs of the motivations for people who are veg or semi-veg. I know you can’t see these clearly, but they show that of the activist tools available to us, video is very important — documentaries and online videos. This is why my group, VegFund, focuses on the most modern tools available to us, rather than what is easiest, most popular, or what was cutting edge 20 years ago.

These graphs also show the importance of conversation, which gets to another important lesson: The power of example. I would actually put this in an even broader context:


The impact of what we personally eat absolutely pales in comparison to the impact we can have with our example, our advocacy, and our donations. Imagine if you have a conversation with someone, or convince someone to watch an online ad, or fund the screening of a documentary, and as a result, just one person stops eating animals. With just that relatively minor effort, you will have done as much good as will be accomplished by every compassionate choice you will make the rest of your life.


Now there’s tons more we can discuss, which is why I wrote two books and tried to keep my prepared remarks short. But before we open it up, this last point bears repeating: each one of us can have a profound impact in the world.  We don’t do this by being the angry vegan. The key to changing the world is to set aside our ego, to refuse to be driven by dogma, to refuse to give into anger and hatred.


Instead, we can focus on positive, pragmatic, practical outreach that is entirely dedicated to helping as many animals as possible.

As I hope I’ve made clear, it was extremely difficult for me to stop trying to glorify my veganism. I was the worst offender in terms of worrying about words and definitions and winning arguments. But now, I think back to times when I was in so much pain that I wanted to die. Wanted to die. And I know there are animals out there who are going through that right now.


You know that, too. You know that what is being done to animals right now is so brutal, so terrible, it hurts just to watch the footage. It hurts to even think about it.

Embrace your empathy! Let your fundamental compassion drive you. Your basic goodness can keep the focus on the bottom line — helping animals as much as possible — while preventing distractions like dogma and definitions.

We should do this because a truly different world is possible! When I stopped eating animals nearly 30 years ago, I didn’t believe the world could change.

Now I know it can.


The future is in our hands. The world can change if enough of us embrace radical pragmatism and set a realistic, reasonable example. If enough of us let our advocacy and our contributions be guided by having the greatest possible impact. If enough of us recognize the unstoppable power of compassion matched with reason.


It is an incredible time to be vegetarian. Billionaires investing in vegan companies. Brilliant, bottom-line dedicated individuals building companies to reach the mainstream, not just vegans. Food technology advancing like crazy.


Restaurants like Veggie Grill and Native Foods spreading like wildfire and reaching an ever-increasing audience. The number of animals slaughtered going down.

We are at the start of a fundamental transformation of our society. You can play a pivotal part. Please do — and you can start by visiting VegFund.org today. As an activist and/or a donor, you can truly change the world!

Thank you so much!



22 Responses to Embrace and Encourage: Lessons from Three Decades

  1. This is a brilliant speech, Matt! Thank you for all that you do for both humans and other animals, and your continued role in educating us all within the movement!

  2. Thanks so much Matt.
    Can you help me? I struggle to find balance – how much is enough? For example, I find myself feeling guilty if I spend money on a holiday, or a nice meal etc. because I know that that money could’ve been spent on “activism”. I’ve been vegan for 20 years, give %10 of my income to charity, and leaflet occasionally, does that mean I’m off the hook?! Can you help assuage my perpetual guilt? Thanks again for sharing your wisdom…

    • Louise — thanks for your comment. It is a very difficult question. Given that most people who go veg, and most activists I’ve known for the past 30 years have quit, I tend to suggest erring on the side of caution / self-care. Unfortunately, there is no easy answer — it is something I still struggle with today. Knowing that you’re making a difference is important, and you are. Good luck!

  3. Thanks Matt. You never seem to lose focus on what the animals care about. Your lack of egocentrism sets a standard for myself and other, should I say, suffering reductionists?

  4. Thank you so much for this article. September 13, 2013 after traveling thru Amarillo, Tx and smelling the horrific smell of a slaughterhouse my eyes were open and I started realizing how awefull that was for those animals that gave their lives for us to eat. I gave up beef, chicken, and pork but have struggled with the seafood side. I don’t eat it everyday maybe one to two times a week. Yes I feel guilty. I have given up milk this was a big one for a woman of 53 years raised on milk. I don’t buy ice cream I buy almond milk ice cream or I just eat the fruit Popsicles. I am diabetic so I try to limit my fruit. But I love vegetables. And beans and rice. I struggle with cheese big time and I feel very guilty. At home I only purchase Vegan cheeses but out in public at restaurants I struggle with chili con queso mainly. So I guess I am not a true vegetarian because I will have seafood. So yes this is a journey that I struggle with but I can proudly say I have had no beef, chicken or pork in a year and a half. My favorite cheese is Kite Hill but is extremely hard to get. Thank you and all the vegan vegetarians out there that have helped me thru reading your articles.

  5. I wonder what your thoughts are on reaching those folks that won’t get to see a film/documentary, or refuse to take a leaflet etc. I’d like to think that the Direct Action Everywhere (DxE) demonstrations, where activists enter food courts/restaurants, are a good example where it’s the only opportunity for many to see the connection between animal suffering and the food on their plate. These action are of course, a form of trespass, with activists often chanting and holding up disturbing images, plus speaking about the horrors of factory farming etc. I’ve now done a few of these, as well as leafletting, supporting documentaries, veg fests, and a multitude of other actions. I so agree with your advice on not being the vegan police when someone tells you about the progress they’re making, but I do admit to letting folks know gently that the organic eggs/meat etc still suffer while transported and slaughtered.

  6. When you say “vegetarian”, do you mean vegan or ovo-lacto vegetarian? I’m confused. If you mean”vegan” why not use the word, “vegan”?

    Are you trying to get people to go vegetarian or vegan? Since animals are still tortured and killed with dairy and eggs, why confuse vegetarianism with veganism and why encourage vegetarianism? It makes no sense to me at all.

    • Totally understand your confusion. The research shows that usually only long-time vegetarians go (and stay!) vegan. Thus it is best to advocate vegetarianism to meat eaters, as they are far more likely to accept the vegetarianism than veganism (particularly when you factor in sticking with it). Also, I would include abstinence from eggs in my definition of vegetarianism, not only veganism.
      Source: Veganomics

  7. And what do you mean by “go veg”? It suggests you’re encouraging people go go vegetarian, not vegan. What’s the point? So what if people exchange one kind of exploitation–meat–for another–dairy and eggs? How does that help animals? Why not just be clear and advocate veganism?

    I find this message very confused and confusing. I was a confused vegetarian for quite a long time before someone kindly explained to me why I needed to go vegan. I wish I had been clear about that a lot sooner. I know I would have gone vegan if I had been given a clear vegan message from the start. Surely we have a responsibility to be clear and honest with people and not add to their confusion?

    • Thanks for the comment, Linda. As the article explains, the words only matter as they actually have real-world impact. Thus, we focus on what is most effective at getting people to start making changes to help animals (the first step), rather than just insisting on what we view as the final, pure step. To this end, we focus on the relevant research and attitudes of the people we need to reach, not the opinions of our fellow vegans. Again, thanks for taking the time to reach the article!

      • Hi Jenny,
        There are loads of ways to constructively reach new people. But the group you suggest has explicitly said they aren’t seeking to win people over, which is what will be necessary to create real change. Of course, as I stated in the article, I completely understand why we would want to express our anger and outrage. But of the tens of thousands of vegetarians and vegans I’ve met over the past 30 years, none of them said they changed because someone screamed or chanted at them. Thus, we focus on positive, proven tactics to create real-world change.
        Thanks for taking the time to read the article!

        • wow, what a great video!! And I totally agree! Am quite familiar with DxE and while I applaud their courage and passion the chanting is not doing anything to make people want to listen. Watch their videos of their Whole Foods demos and every single person in the background is deliberately ignoring them, backs turned. Exception being the store managers getting pissed off and the hecklers. How is this an appealing message? I participated in a Whole Foods demo against their selling rabbit meat (not with DxE) and starting conversations and educating that way was entirely positive and eye opening for MANY of the people I interacted with. No one wants to be shouted or chanted at. Think about demos by people like Westboro Baptist Church – do you really want to sound like them??

  8. This is a great speech Matt. Wish I could’ve been there to see a delivery hopefully as amazing as the composition. Any chance it’s on YouTube?

    • Hi Bri — I give the talk on Easter. Don’t know if they’ll tape it, but if so, I’ll be sure to link to it. Thanks so much!

  9. Matt, what data do you have to support the statement: “since 2006, the number of animals killed in the US has fallen, even as the human population has gone up”? Everything I’ve read states that animals killed has risen because of our population boom. Many more animals are going to need to suffer to feed our growing population. We add 1.5 million people to our planet each and every week. Wouldn’t our efforts be better spent on lowering our population? If one vegan convincing someone else to go vegan has such an impact, what if we worked on women’s rights and lowered the population by thousands??

    • Hi Sue — the data for the graphs are right from the USDA.
      Having talked with people doing population / women’s rights work around the world, I think that most people are in a position to do the most good by encouraging / working to help people change their diet here in the US. The US is exporting factory farming to the world; we will also develop and export the technologies that will obviate the need for “growing” entire animals to eat part of their bodies.

  10. Great article as usual. I wish all activists and people who want to help animals could read your articles.

  11. In terms of the graph of meat consumption, I often see this as evidence that people are actively reducing their meat consumption….but it happened right when the US economy was going into a major recession. Since 2011 per capita meat consumption has been pretty stable. Of course there could be two concurrent trends, but its pretty clear given the timing of the drop and the timing of the stabilization that this trend had a lot to do with the economy. Hard to see how all the vegan faddism has resulted in any substantial change.

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