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Book Review: The Animals’ Agenda by Marc Bekoff & Jessica Pierce

The Animals’ Agenda: Freedom, Compassion, and Coexistence in the Human Age by Marc Bekoff and Jessica Pierce is an important and timely book that examines the human relationship with — or, more accurately, examines the many ways in which humans use — animals and how this relationship needs to evolve. This book asks readers to rethink how we see animals and to adopt more compassionate practices toward them, from animals used for food and entertainment to those in the wild.

If this book has one message that we all need to hear, it’s that animals in our society suffer abuses that we currently accept as normal — the hope is that one day we will all see these practices as barbaric instead of acceptable or necessary. The authors argue that humans are indeed aware, on some level, of these abuses but are not taking steps toward actually preventing them. Most people still eat animals, still visit zoos, still hunt and fish. “We offer lip service to freedom, in talking about ‘cage-free chickens’ and ‘naturalistic zoo enclosures.’ But real freedom for animals is the one value we don’t want to acknowledge, because it would require a deep examination of our own behavior…Many animals live impoverished lives because of our desires or our lack of awareness.”

The Animals’ Agenda shows how, despite studies that prove the intelligence and emotional sensitivity of animals, nothing will change until humans accept this suffering and choose to stop supporting it — by not attending zoos, for example, or by not eating or wearing animal products. They compare the reality of standard, accepted animal suffering to Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth: “The truth of animal feelings is similarly inconvenient, in that it challenges our highly profitable animal industries and our personal habits.”

The book is organized in sections that tackle the ways in which animals are at the mercy of humans, including farmed animals, animals in labs, pets, and wild animals. Among the most important points the authors make is that so-called improvements in the treatment of animals as a result of animal welfare studies actually do more harm than good because they let people off the hook by allowing them to believe the animals don’t suffer as much as they actually do. One powerful example is in the work of Temple Grandin, who “is hailed as a compassionate helper of animals while at the same time working within a venue in which billions of animals are harmed and killed…she has done more than anyone else to deflect attention from real freedom for animals. Even if a few animals are getting a ‘better life,’ it surely is not a good life.”

And this is the main point of The Animals’ Agenda: that non-human animals deserve the freedoms we human animals enjoy. And yet no non-human species comes even close. Even farmed animals who are fed and housed (allowing people to believe they are “cared for”) have no freedom whatsoever: “They are confined to small cages or crates, or else they are packed into a large space with so many others of their kind that physical movement is highly constrained…They have little to no control over social interactions and attachments.” Most of their diets are so unnatural to them that the animals feel hungry all the time, even when they are fed. And lest you think that “free-range” animals have it better, read on; as the authors show, “Humane is a dirty little lie.” Methods of castration, for example, that are “animal welfare approved” by the United States do not require anesthesia. And readers will be shocked to read of the terrible conditions and abuses that occur at AZA-accredited zoos.

One chapter of the book is devoted to companion animals and points out “how little research has been directed at the welfare of animals kept as pets, either in the home environment or in pet stores and breeding facilities.” Yet instead of focusing on ways to end the breeding and sale of animals, the authors focus on “exploring freedom and preferences in relation to our most common animal companions — dogs and cats” — despite their acknowledgment of the dearth of research. There are many good points in this chapter — the ills of the wholesale pet industry, the lack of knowledge most humans have about the needs of their pets — but by advocating for greater freedoms for companion animals, the authors do a disservice to shelter pets and their humans. While they acknowledge that “as companions of dogs, we can do our best to balance necessary constraints against as full a measure of freedom as possible,” they actually advise against keeping cats indoors (not mentioning exceptions for such circumstances as FIV-positive or declawed cats): “Depending on location, cats may have to contend with busy roads, with predators such as coyotes or cougars, with humans who have bad intentions, and with the possibility of injury or disease. But as with our children, we cannot protect them from all risk…Letting cats outside may be what ethicist Bill Lynn calls ‘a sad good,’ a good that involves an element of moral risk and harm.”

The fact that this book advocates so strongly for animals in other ways makes this chapter on pets a liability, as it risks derailing the book’s entire message: If readers think it’s okay to allow their cats to face injury, disease, and death from traffic or predators, why should they attempt to avoid causing such harm when it comes to farmed animals or captive animals in zoos? Many animal-rights activists would agree that keeping pets is something that humans should eventually give up — but until every last animal shelter is empty, these animals need to be adopted, loved, and protected. Companion animals deserve freedom the same way dairy cows do, but whereas the life of a dairy cow is a daily torture, most pets are not being tortured simply by being kept inside homes or behind fences for their own safety. Even a free dairy cow would presumably fenced in at a sanctuary, not left out on her own. It’s this chapter, in an otherwise stellar book, that may make it hard for non-activists to embrace the idea of animal freedom.

The Animals’ Agenda goes on to note the ways in which even wild animals, on both land and in oceans, suffer due to our influence — from habitat loss to our noise to our trash — and that even conservation work, such as capturing and tagging animals, has its own negative effects. Education is key here, and the authors’ message is clear: “a great number of things we currently do to animals are simply wrong and need to stop: the unnecessary slaughter of animals for food and fur, the use of animals in invasive research, the confinement of animals for human entertainment, and our excessive encroachment on wildlife.”

While Bekoff and Pierce detail the good science that is happening regarding animal welfare, they also note that we must “close the knowledge-translation gap”; in the end, much of this knowledge primarily serves the industries that abuse animals. For things to improve, for us to put “what we know about animals into the service of animals themselves,” it will take nothing less than a compassionate society to adopt a mindset of true animal freedom. A very good first step toward that is reading this book.

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Book Review: Clean Meat by Paul Shapiro

Paul Shapiro’s book Clean Meat: How Growing Meat Without Animals Will Revolutionize Dinner and the World explores the fascinating — and potentially planet-saving — world of cultured meat.

While the notion of “cultured meat” or “lab-grown” meat may sound odd to many, Shapiro’s book makes the case for why this new industry is among our best hopes for, quite literally, saving the world. He notes, “Our species truly is at a crossroads. It’s not hard to imagine the global instability that could ensue when we have billions more people on the planet, including billions more who expect to eat meat regularly. We just don’t have the resources to satiate that demand without destroying our planet and inflicting an enormity of suffering on animals, both domesticated and wild, in the process.”

As a decades-long vegan and the founder of Compassion Over Killing, Shapiro, who has also served as a vice president for the Humane Society of the United States, knows firsthand what’s at stake, and in Clean Meat he takes us behind the scenes of those who are about to change the world for the better.

As Yuval Noah Harari notes in the book’s foreword, “The world’s animals are not the wildlife we think of when we think of animals.” Rather, most animals that exist on the planet are bred for our consumption. For example: There are forty thousand lions in the world to one billion domesticated pigs, fifty million penguins to fifty billion chickens—and for these animals, life is horrific: “Judged by the amount of suffering it causes, industrial farming of animals is arguably one of the worst crimes in history.”

Cultured meat is the answer not only to the problem of animal suffering but to the issue of greenhouse gases produced by animal agriculture (responsible for more greenhouse gases than all forms of transportation combined); the massive water consumption required (“you’d save more water skipping one family chicken dinner than by skipping six months of showers”); and the destruction of rainforests to raise animals (“animal feed is the leading cause of rainforest deforestation, essentially killing the lungs of our planet”). In Clean Meat, Shapiro writes about start-up pioneers who envision “a world in which we can have our meat and eat it, too: where we can enjoy abundant amounts of meat and other animal products without all the environmental, animal welfare, and public health costs.”

Shapiro details the fascinating science behind cultured meat as well as shows us the history of meat consumption in the U.S. and other countries, and why it’s becoming unsustainable.The science of clean meat is explained in both technical and layman’s terms, which makes the industry’s concepts accessible to all readers — and the sections outlining the technology are remarkable, showing us how real animal products such as meat and leather are being produced from microscopic animal cells, and even from yeast, bacteria, or algae.

The book also demystifies many of our perceptions of cultured meat (one major point being that clean meat is not as wild an idea as we think because nearly all the food we currently eat is scientifically engineered, from packaged foods such as protein bars to vegetables and fruits such as seedless watermelon). In addition, the very term “clean meat” reflects the improved food safety of these products; whereas meat from animals raised on farms contains antibiotics, hormones, fecal matter, and diseases such as avian flu, cultured meat, which is produced in a completely sterile environment, will be far safer to eat than the meat being produced today. “Imagine choosing between an egg white that might have salmonella and one you know doesn’t,” says Arturo Elizondo of Clara Foods. “Or milk with pus versus milk without pus, which all cow’s milk has. Which would you choose?”

Perhaps most surprising is that the concept of cultured meat is not as new as it seems; as far back as 1931, Winston Churchill wrote of “the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing” — and even he was not the first: “As early as 1894 … French chemistry professor Pierre-Eugène-Marcellin Berthelot claimed that by the year 2000, humans would dine on meat grown in a lab rather than from slaughtered animals.” Shapiro outlines our history of attempting to improve the way we eat, from hunting and foraging to culturing such foods as beer and yogurt, and how technology has brought us to where we are today. In the pages of Clean Meat, we meet scientists, idealists, and businesspeople, all working toward bringing this science to the mainstream. Having met representatives from many of the companies in this emerging field — among them Memphis Meats, Modern Meadow, Hampton Creek, Mosa Meat, Finless Foods, SuperMeat, Future Meat Technologies, Perfect Day, Clara Foods, Bolt Threads, VitroLabs, Spiber, Geltor, and others — Shapiro notes, “Interestingly, for the most part they don’t consider one another rivals as much as they do friendly competitors, all working toward the same goal.”

As with any major disruption in our social, cultural, and economic lives, clean meat will have a tremendous impact on everything from jobs to food to animal welfare, and in the end, it will likely succeed if it improves the lives of humans. As Shapiro points out, much of animal protection is accidental — whaling only stopped in the mid-nineteenth century because kerosene was discovered to be a better and more affordable alternative to whale oil; horses were replaced with cars only thanks to Henry Ford’s innovation, not animal advocates (though wonderful advocates did exist, they were not the reason Americans exchanged horses for cars).

So there is reason for hope for clean meat, especially “given that mainstream meat consumers (i.e., most people in our society) rarely think twice about buying meat from animals who’ve been raised in unsanitary and inhumane conditions … it’s difficult to imagine most of us having a problem with clean meat that (aside from being safer, eco-friendlier, and more humane) is pretty much the same meat that we’re used to eating.”

The biggest question of all — how does it taste? — will ultimately be answered by consumers themselves. As you’ll read in Clean Meat, the reviews so far are quite good. Shapiro was invited to try several foods in process, from “steak chips” to cultured foie gras to clean duck. A vegan for more than two decades, he writes, “I had little ethical concern about eating the [cultured] meat, but it still felt bizarre to be on the precipice of ingesting animal flesh.” He reports that the taste of the products he sampled was authentic; the duck “was exactly how I remembered duck tasting from my youth.”

Clean Meat should be read by anyone who cares about the planet, but most of all by those who currently eat and wear animals the way these products are made today. This book provides a detailed, well-rounded examination of a new industry that highlights the challenges — and the incredible possibilities — of feeding and clothing us all in an increasingly populated and demanding world.

“I’m convinced that when we look back in thirty years on today, how we raise and slaughter billions of animals to make our hamburgers and handbags, we’ll see this as being wasteful, inhumane, and indeed crazy,” Andras Forgacs of Modern Meadow tells Shapiro. “We need to move past just killing animals as a resource to something more civilized and evolved. Perhaps we’re ready for something literally and figuratively more cultured.”

Learn more at www.cleanmeat.com as well as www.cleanmeat.org. And check out my interview with Paul Shapiro at VegNews.

 

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Book Review: The Vegan Studies Project

vegan studies project

Donald Watson is widely credited with having coined the term “vegan” in 1944, when he and others founded the Vegan Society.

Since then, the word has become so heavily loaded with cultural and emotional baggage (both pro and con) that an increasing number of vegan restaurants and food brands I come across now use the words “plant-based” instead.

But I like the word “vegan” in all its messy glory. And I’m not about to stop using it.

The fact is, the word represents disruption on an enormous scale — to food industries, political systems, religious traditions, family traditions, and personal relationships. This word can make people uncomfortable. There was a time in my life, not many years ago, when it made me uncomfortable.

Which is why I was so interested in reading The Vegan Studies Project by Laura Wright.

The book is largely academic in nature, with plenty of footnotes and references to other academic works. But there are also numerous personal narratives included. While the author doesn’t explicitly call out for the creation of “vegan studies” programs at universities, this would be a natural and positive outcome.

Wright points out that there is no “one” vegan movement, nor one typical vegan. Some people are vegan for animals, some for diet, some for allergies, some for all of the above. But Wright illustrates how commonly vegans are portrayed by media and popular culture as one entity: elitists, separatists, even terrorists. More culturally loaded words.

This is a book that poses considerably more questions than it answers, which is by design. The word “project” denotes the beginning of something, and this book sets out to open lines of discussion around the contemporary vegan movement. Issues such as:

  • Vegan celebrities: Do celebrities help the movement when they go vegan? And do they do more harm than good when they give it up?
  • Death by veganism: Every few years it seems that vegan parents come under scrutiny for “starving” their children through their vegan diet. Neal Barnard is one of a growing number of doctors who have made good progress in debunking the myths surrounding vegan diets and children.
  • Vegans in entertainment: Wright devotes significant attention to the popularity of vampire books, TV and film, examining the evolution of vampires. (As an aside, it’s a shame the vegan vampire series that Ashland Creek Press published — the Lithia Trilogy — was overlooked. This series features a vegan vampire that goes well beyond the “vegetarian” vampires popularized by the Twilight Series and discussed by the author.)
  • Veganism and eating disorders: Is veganism the cause of some eating disorders (as some people claim) or does it represent a path away from eating disorders? I find this area particularly interesting because veganism is often viewed as a lifestyle of deprivation — and, if not embarked upon properly, sometimes it can be. Many restaurants still make it difficult to eat vegan, but this is changing — and quickly. How will veganism be portrayed in the years ahead as food choices become more commonplace and more affordable?
  • Veganism and masculinity: Meat is so tightly intertwined with the concept of masculinity that it’s hard to get through fifteen minutes of an NFL football game without watching commercials that all but shout that you’re not a man if you don’t eat meat. Fortunately, many men are challenging this worldview, proving through bodybuilding or running that men can thrive without eating meat. This is a positive step forward, though I’d like to get to a point in time where men can be vegan without feeling like they have to run a marathon or two.

Religion should also be included in this field of study and was curiously missing from the book. I would love to see more researchers tackle how religious works are used to defend meat eating as well as to defend not eating meat.

Veganism/vegetarianism is not a new philosophy. The notion of not eating animals apparently goes back to Pythagoras. But I do find it maddening how over the past few hundred years the movement has bubbled up for periods of time only to fade again from mainstream view. This time, I think, is different — especially as climate change and the environment is increasingly linked with animal agriculture. Reading this book, I’m reminded of the many ways that veganism is becoming more and more central to our culture, even if the word itself is not used outright.

This book sets the stage for more researchers, more writers, more people to better understand this word and what it means to the world.

The Vegan Studies Project: Food, Animals, and Gender in the Age of Terror
The University of Georgia Press

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Book Review: Veganomics by Nick Cooney

Veganomics

VeganomicsIf you are looking for a ray of hope, it can be found in the effective altruism movement. Effective altruists are people who are thinking about not just doing good, but doing the most good they can do — and acting on it.

For those interested in animal welfare, a great introduction to this can be found in Nick Cooney‘s Veganomics: The Surprising Science on What Motivates Vegetarians from the Breakfast Table to the Bedroom. Frustrated that more people aren’t vegan? Sad friends and family don’t get it? Here’s your book.

Veganomics delves into scientific studies and crunches the numbers: Who are vegetarians? Why do they do it? Who is more likely to go meat-free? What motivates them to try and stick with it? It’s a data-driven approach to advocacy.

“The sooner vegetarian advocates put the research that already exists to use, the more animals will be spared their misery. The sooner vegetarian advocates carry out direct research to guide their decisions, the closer we will all be to the world we want to see.”

The book takes a utilitarian approach to ethics and advocacy. It’s aimed at how to do “the greatest good for the greatest number”: save the largest number of animals and get more people on board. This way of assessing vegetarian eating and saving animals can be a little off-putting at first — a Spock-like approach to a passionate issue.

However, the numbers can also be inspiring and motivating. Consider: The average woman is responsible for the suffering and death of 29 animals per year versus 37 animal deaths for men. Go meat-free and that’s lives saved.

Advocate for animals and you can triple, quadruple the number of lives saved. For vegetarians who aren’t engaged in activism, it’s still useful information. The way you respond to questions about what you eat can make a difference in furthering meat-free eating as a positive, viable choice.

“It’s a matter of getting the values people attach to vegetarian meats to be the values embraced by most Americans. Eating vegetarian chicken strips needs to become as American as eating apple pie.”

The book’s vegan advocacy checklist is available as a free download. A few key points:

  • Young women are most likely to change their diet to cut out or cut back on meat.
  • New vegetarians need social support to stay vegetarian.
  • More animals will be saved by focusing on getting people to reduce consumption of chicken, fish, and eggs.
  • Focusing on animal welfare is the most effective way to get people to eat less meat (followed by health reasons). “The more that people care about animals, even if it’s not their main motivation for being vegetarian, the fewer animals they will eat.”
  • Environmental and social justice reasons for going meat-free are less effective.
  • The phrase “meat-free” is more effective than vegetarian or vegan.
  • People are more likely to stay vegetarian if they make the change gradually and start with familiar foods. Plant-based meats can be very helpful and Veganomics includes an interesting discussion of the history of plant-based protein from John Harvey Kellogg’s Nuttose and Granose to today’s Beyond Meat.

It’s clear from the book that more data and research would be helpful. Overall, it’s about results-oriented compassion and effective animal advocacy.

Nick Cooney
Author Nick Cooney, Director of Education at Mercy For Animals and Founder of The Humane League, a vegan advocacy group, talks about his new book “How to Be Great at Doing Good” at Loving Hut in Seattle.

“Compassionate people like you are the only hope animals have of escaping existential misery. That is not a theory or poetic rhetoric. It’s a cold, hard fact.”

What to read next: How to be Great at Doing Good (2015), Nick Cooney; The Most Good You Can Do (2015), Peter Singer and, forthcoming in August, Doing Good Better, William MacAskill. See also, In Defense of Animals: The Second Wave (2005), essays edited by Peter Singer, especially part III “Activists and Their Strategies.”

Inspired by this book: Check out Animal Charity Evaluators and the Center for Effective Altruism as well as the Humane League Labs, for more research on vegan advocacy.

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Book Review: Ruby Roth’s Young Activist 3-Book Gift Pack

Ruby Roth's Vegan is Love

Here’s a great gift for your favorite young activist, vegan household, to celebrate your Veganuary, or for your local or little free library. Ruby Roth’s delightful and inspiring children’s picture books are a must have for the vegan bookshelf. No children required.

Ruby Roth children's booksAdults will appreciate the beautiful illustrations and straightforward explanations of the vegan lifestyle, too. Tired of feeling like an outlier? Fed up with odd questions about your diet? Need a reminder why you went vegan? These books make it refreshingly simple and obvious.

Animals are “friends, not food,” our treatment of them is cruel and harmful to the planet and a vegan lifestyle is a powerful, loving choice. Each book ends with tips on what kids (and all of us) can do to make a difference.

Roth’s first book That’s Why We don’t Eat Animals: A Book About Vegans, Vegetarian, and All Living Things (2009) focuses on farmed animals — chickens, turkeys, ducks and geese, pigs, cows — in short paragraphs on animal science.

No “heigh-ho, the derry-o,” it scraps the “happy cow” and “petting zoo” myths and shows the reality of modern farming and animal use and abuse.

“A factory-farm pig may spend her whole life alone, fattened in a pen so tiny that she won’t even be able to turn around. A free pig never poops where she eats or sleeps, but on a factory farm she has no choice.”

“Pigs need the sight sound, and touch of one another. Sometimes they snuggle so close that it’s hard to get them apart. Love is part of their nature.”

Then, it talks about the environment and human impacts on the ocean, fish, the rainforest, and endangered species, “We must consider how the foods we eat affect the planet.”

Ruby Roth's Vegan is LoveRoth’s next book is the perfect vegan Valentine. You could enjoy it just for its cover, which features a darling elephant and her heart-shaped trunk. Vegan Is Love: Having Heart and Taking Action (2012) takes a global view and pictures an assortment of animals, wildlife and domestic.

It introduces the harms to animals of our use of them for clothing and entertainment from animal testing to zoos, the circus, bullfights and rodeos. The images here are dark and distressing.

Then, it shows how eating with love aids our health and impacts our planet from the forests, to our oceans, to the arctic. The brighter images and happy animals return.

“The truth is we do not need to eat meat or dairy. Most animals in the world are herbivores, and just like them, we can grow strong and healthy by eating from nature’s gardens.”

V Is for Vegan: The ABCs of Being Kind (2013) is a cute and funny primer on the vegan lifestyle.

“Aa is for animals —friends, not food. We don’t eat our friends, they’d find it quite rude.”

It shows kids enjoying nature, helping in the kitchen and planting seeds. It illustrates what’s good to eat, “Ll is for legumes, often called beans,” and what’s not, “Eg is for eggs from a chicken’s butt?! Wow.”

Roth’s artwork helps us see animals and our treatment of them with fresh eyes and wonder, countering the complacency of the status quo. She offers an empowering message.

“While the power of nature can move mountains and make rainbows, the power we have as humans is boundless too. Every day, we have the freedom to change our lives. In fact, when we treat animals respectfully, we practice world peace. That’s why we don’t eat animals.”

What do your kiddos have to say? It would be great to hear children’s reactions to these books. Have you read them to your children? Do leave some kid quotes in the comments.

Inspired by these books? Check out Farm Sanctuary’s Someone, Not Something project for more information about farm animal emotion, behavior and intelligence.

What next? Read Roth’s blog post “Why Being the Lone Vegan Makes You a Power Player“.  See the EcoLit review of The Lorax by Dr. Seuss, another essential for the young activist bookshelf.

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Book Review: Comfortably Unaware: What We Choose to Eat Is Killing Us and Our Planet by Richard Oppenlander

Richard Oppenlander’s Comfortably Unaware is a book everyone on the planet should read. Unfortunately, the book’s biggest drawback is that it may not feel accessible to those who need to read it most.

In Comfortably Unaware, Oppenlander makes the case for why the planet needs us humans to adopt a plant-based diet in order to preserve the earth’s rapidly dwindling resources. His sources and statistics are compelling and spot-on—and yet they’re not nearly as well known among environmentalists as they should be. Without question, to be an environmentalist is to be a vegan; as Oppenlander highlights throughout this slender book, animal agriculture is the single biggest cause of our worst environmental problems. From the oceans (raising animals for food pollutes our waterways more than all other industries combined) to the rainforests (70 percent of the world’s rainforests have been destroyed to raise livestock) to the air (the farming of animals is responsible for 20 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions), Oppenlander offers staggering statistics that should make all of us think about our diets.

comfortably unaware

And for those who feel they are not yet willing to give up meat, Oppenlander points out that the depletion caused by animal agriculture may leave us with nothing at all. Already, 55 percent of the world’s fresh water is being used to raise animals for food. In the U.S. alone, 70 percent of all grain feeds livestock instead of humans, while worldwide more than a billion people suffer from hunger and malnutrition. He notes that “80 percent of the world’s starving children live in countries where food surpluses are fed to animals that are then killed and eaten by more well-off individuals in developed countries.”

In addition to environmental concerns, the book highlights other reasons for adopting a plant-based diet and tackles some of the more popular myths about animal protein and osteoporosis (as one example: countries with the highest diary consumption have the highest incidences of osteoporosis). Oppenlander also notes the horrific conditions under which farmed animals suffer and writes of the sensitivity of pigs, the inquisitive intelligence of chickens, the personalities and emotions of turkeys. While the depletion of the earth’s resources is his main focus here, he paints a full picture of why the diet of the future needs to be plant-based. He is also ready with answers to the anticipated questions of how the loss of animal agriculture would affect the economy.

Despite the fact that, for most omnivores, becoming vegan is a change that usually happens gradually, Oppenlander doesn’t go easy on those who may want or need to move slowly toward a plant-based diet. Of the increasingly popular “Meatless Monday” campaign, he writes, “Good; that’s terrific. Now you will be contributing to global warming, pollution, and global depletion of our planet’s resources six days of the week instead of seven.” This isn’t likely to endear omnivores to the cause or inspire change; much more compelling are other statistics Oppenlander offers, such as the true cost of having a quarter-pound hamburger for lunch: It takes fifty-five square feet of rainforest to produce a quarter-pounder, which also requires 1,200 gallons of water.

Comfortably Unaware doesn’t tell stories—the book is more a collection of statistics and pleas to change our ways—but these facts do add up to a story, and it’s a tragic one: We are devastating the planet in ways that may soon be irreversible, and yet our culture, traditions, and habits have so far prevented us from making the necessary changes that could save the environment from the point of no return. Though the book may be difficult for some omnivores to digest, its message is important enough and urgent enough that I hope all will read it.

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Book Review: Beg: A Radical New Way of Regarding Animals by Rory Freedman

Rory Freedman’s new book, Beg: A Radical New Way of Regarding Animals, is a must-read for anyone who believes himself or herself to be an animal lover. The main idea behind this book is that many people who think they love animals in fact unknowingly participate in any number of things that do animals great harm — and this idea is indeed “radical” to people who love their dogs but eat pigs (who are just as intelligent) or love their cats but wear leather, and so on.

Beg

Yet this book is not at all preachy; Freedman uses the same warmth and humor that made the Skinny Bitch books so wildly popular. And she is also not the type of activist who feels superior to anyone who isn’t yet on the same page — she writes, “I wasn’t born a vegan…I was contributing to a lot of violence and suffering. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t remind you, with love, that you too have been complicit in the confinement, torture, and slaughter of animals.”

This will surely sound harsh to some readers — yet this is precisely what Beg is about: opening pet lovers’ eyes to the realities of what other animals suffer and asking what it truly means to call oneself an animal lover. While the book begins with stories of Freedman’s own pets, she inserts a short letter about a third of the way through letting us know “the party’s over” — in other words, the tough stuff starts here. And it’s also the most important stuff — the many ways in which we all may be contributing to animal suffering (and, as she also points out, human suffering and environmental devastation) through choices that can very easily be changed or modified.

Freedman tackles such topics as why we need to adopt animals, not buy them; the horrors behind dog shows and the declawing of cats; animal studies, and why they’re bad for both animals and humans; bullfighting, dog racing, the circus, the Iditarod, sport fishing, hunting, and other forms of “entertainment”; and fashion, from leather to fur to wool.

Readers new to the facts behind these issues may not realize that, for example, while the American Humane Association (AHA) monitors animals on the set of films and assures viewers that “no animals were harmed during the making of this film,” most animal abuse and deaths occur during training or off set. (As just one example, check out the “humane” treatment of elephants used in the film Water for Elephants, in this article and video by Animal Defenders International.)

Many who choose faux fur over the real thing may not realize that some of the “faux” fur is not faux at all — and much fur, both real and fake, comes from cats and dogs, part of a gruesome and heartbreaking fur trade in China.

Readers who think of themselves as environmentalists may be interested to learn that giving up meat and leather are among the very most environmentally friendly things they can do (Freedman notes that “animal agriculture is the number one cause of climate change…It beats out all transportation in the world combined”). And readers who might say, “Aren’t people more important than animals?” will learn that the human-rights abuses in factory farms are rampant, and that the grain being used to feed animals could be far better used to feed the world’s hungry.

The only thing I wish were different about this book are the title and package, which are so specifically geared toward dogs that I worry cat people and others might feel it’s not for them (as more of a cat person, I probably wouldn’t have picked it up if I didn’t already admire Freedman and her work). It would be a shame if this ends up limiting the audience because this book shows the reality of how far we all need to go in how we treat animals and also offers amazing resources, tips, and ideas for positive change.

And Freedman is the first to admit that it’s a long journey: As someone who once had her own cat declawed (“Had I allowed simple common sense to pervade my teenage brain, I would’ve known that declawing a cat is cruel and barbaric…How selfish and stupid”) and who used to eat meat at three meals a day, Freedman writes with compassion as well as understanding. Change is hard, she admits, but she’s not shy about exhorting readers to give it a try — and she’s taking a hands-on approach. (Visit her website for more info.)

“So what’s it gonna be?” Freedman asks us. “You’re either in or you’re out.”