Fifty shades of green

In a hallway of William L. Harkness Hall, an elderly man in red polyester pants and a blouse decorated with lemons, oranges, apples, mangos, grapes, and flowers talked animatedly to a man in a blue sweater and blazer. Food consumed by animals to be slaughtered could be put more efficiently toward directly feeding humans, he explained.

This year, Yale hosted the second annual Ivy League Vegan Conference, a follow up to last year’s inaugural conference at the University of Pennsylvania. From Fri., Feb. 15 to Sun., Feb. 17, a series of events featured talks from geoscientists, philosophers, legal experts, and medical doctors, in addition to a career fair Saturday afternoon. Eitan Fischer, JE ’13, a Yale co-director, explained, “Our mission—and I think we succeeded in it—was to advance the discourse on veganism and plant-based diets generally, as well as secondarily bringing together a powerful network of activists who are also scholars, and who are the backbone of this international movement that’s very quickly growing.”

Coordinated by representatives from all eight Ivy League schools, with one organization from each school serving as its primary representative, the conference brings together an array of perspectives on the value of veganism. About half of the hosting groups have the word “animal” in their name, while the other half have the word “vegan.” The groups’ names reflect their varying motivations, despite their common cause.

On Saturday, the series of lectures and panels addressed veganism specifically, including “Are Humans Designed to Eat Meat,” “The Environmental Effects of a Diet,” and a panel of four leading philosophers titled “Contemporary Issues in Animal Ethics.” One member of this panel was Shelly Kagan, Clark Professor of Philosophy. Kagan was a graduate student at Princeton when Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation was published in 1975. Considered the foundational text for the animal liberation movement, the book argues that because animals can feel suffering, we must consider their interests. Kagan read the revolutionary book, along with other philosophers’ works on animal liberation, and found himself persuaded. “I felt myself thinking, ‘you really can’t justify eating meat. I need to give it up,’” Kagan said, adding, “I think anyone who becomes aware of the facts about contemporary factory farming pretty easily sees that you can’t claim the advantages you’re getting from eating a burger outweigh the suffering that’s imposed on cows and chickens and the like.” Since then, Kagan has cut beef, chicken, turkey, and pork out of his diet, but continues to eat fish and other dairy products.

Fischer also read Singer’s book, just before arriving at Yale in the summer of 2009. Like Kagan, he was easily convinced by the ideas Singer lays out: “I got to page 241, and I thought, ‘All right, this makes a lot of sense—I’m going to become a vegetarian. I became a vegan shortly after,” he said.  When he arrived on campus, he founded the Yale Animal Welfare Alliance, an animal advocacy group with the ultimate goal of creating a “cruelty-free student body.”

Although Kagan taught a class last spring on animal ethics, this subject does not form a major component of his research. However, the other professors who participated in the panel, Lori Gruen of Wesleyan University, Dale Jamieson of NYU, and Jeff McMahan of Rutgers University, do focus much of their research on animal rights, as well as the health and environmental benefits of vegan eating. Fischer was particularly excited about the keynote speaker, Wayne Pacelle, JE ’87, whom he said is regarded by many as the leader of the modern animal welfare movement.

The Sunday talk, co-hosted by Professor of Neurobiology at the Yale School of Medicine Gordon Shepherd, looked at veganism through an entirely different lens. Titled “Plant-based diets and Recent Findings in Nutrition,” it featured presentations from Shepherd and two other medical doctors; Shepherd’s talk focused specifically on the findings published in his recent book, in which he studied how the brain creates flavor. The research was not directly related to veganism or animal activism. Shepherd, who himself is not a vegan or vegetarian, said that the conference leaders invited him to broaden the scope of the conference: “This group wants its meetings to reach out, to bring in many different relevant disciplines,” Shepherd said.

The conference was not strictly academic, as it also included three discussions on law, finance, and career choices and their relationship to veganism and animal activism.

The Law panel, titled “Ag-gag Laws, Undercover Investigations, and the 1st Amendment,” focused on recent state laws that prevent advocacy groups from sending out undercover individuals to investigate animal farms. In the past, such findings have revealed inhumane treatment of animals.

“You might think that what state legislatures would do in response is outlaw the abuse of animals and beef up the enforcement of animal protection regulations,” Kagan said.
“But in fact, sadly, shockingly, appallingly enough, state legislatures make it illegal to go undercover and record these companies.”

The career choices discussion, led by William Crouch, founder of the organization 80,000 Hours, was particularly popular among attendees, Fischer said. Crouch co-founded the organization to advise individuals seeking careers through which they might make a positive impact on the world. Many students, Fischer said, feel very passionate about animal rights or veganism but they are not sure how to translate this passion into a career. 80,000 Hours helps individuals by listing donation and volunteer opportunities. Unexpectedly, perhaps, Crouch did not focus his talk on non-profit work: “I wanted to get attendees thinking hard about how best to use their career in order to make the world a better place. By deliberately taking a lucrative career and donating a large proportion of one’s earnings, you can do more good than by pursuing a career in the not-for-profit sector,” Crouch said in an email to the Herald.

Nevertheless, the conference promoted jobs in animal and vegan advocacy, especially during the job fair Saturday afternoon. Each booth sought out attendees looking for further information on jobs and internships in the non-profit sector. Crouch’s booth at the fair was one of the few that didn’t relate directly to veganism and animal advocacy, and focused more generally on altruistic practices in businesses.

Two booths away, Compassion Over Killing had set up shop. COK works to expose animal cruelty in the food production industry and advocates vegetarian eating.

Across from Crouch stood PlantBased Solutions, a year-old firm that offers sales and marketing services to plant-based and vegan food products. “We want folks who want to make a difference, and there are tons of ways to do that. There are so many skills needed to advance the cause,” said David Benzaquen, one of two employees of Plant-Based Solutions.

Also present was Farm Sanctuary, which in addition to advocacy work to promote vegan eating and expose the ills of factory farming, owns three sanctuaries that provide refuge to around 1000 farm animals. As with the talks, each booth at the fair occupied its own niche, but they were all in support of the same underlying cause: vegetarian or vegan eating for the betterment of humans and animals alike.

Nick Cooney, the Farm Sanctuary’s Compassionate Communities Manager, who attended the conference both years, was impressed by how much the conference had grown.  The number of attendees had at least doubled since last year, he speculated.

It was over 30 years ago that Peter Singer’s book first began educating individuals on animal cruelty, and Fischer shows that the same fundamental ideas continue to guide the movement today. A conference that works to represent the opinions of multiple groups shows how the ideas initially laid out have evolved, and how they can and will continue to grow in the future.

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