Add a Zero

I began doing vegan advocacy in 1991. It was a different world then. Nobody knew what a vegan was, much less how to pronounce the word. And the first generation of vegan meat and cheese products was simply vile. I remember craving cheese once and paying a small fortune for a block of vegan cheese. I stuck it in the microwave but no matter how long I nuked it the stuff just wouldn’t melt. Instead it simply perspired, like a glistening block of vinyl hanging out in a sauna.

Those were the days. Vegan food had a deservedly wretched reputation, and there were no popular vegan cookbooks. Most vegans had to make due with vegetarian cookbooks like the Moosewood Cookbook, and hunt through for recipes that were either vegan or could easily be converted. As you might imagine veganism was a tough sell in this climate. The general public knew nothing about factory farming, and there was a widespread belief that being vegetarian meant risking a life-threatening protein deficiency.

Around this time though, I met someone who opened the doorway to activism for me—helping me realize that there were countless possibilities to make an enormous difference. At the time I met him Henry Spira was a 63-year-old activist, who, working alone from his Manhattan apartment, had won one major victory for animals after another.

Spira had been a lifelong union and civil rights activist but in 1973 he switched his focus to animal protection—bringing with him the strategies and tactics that he had learned from a lifetime of activist experience. If there’s one thing that characterized Spira’s work it was a relentless focus on the bottom line: how many animals can you keep from harm? And how quickly and reliably can a proposed campaign be won?

Because he was obsessed with getting results, Spira spent huge amounts of time planning and strategizing before ever launching a campaign. His goal was to avoid conflict by establishing friendly and productive private dialogs with company leaders who were in a position to create change. Public confrontations were always a last resort, and would only occur after all other options had been exhausted.

This is the approach Spira used back in the 1980s when he sought to eliminate widespread animal testing by the cosmetics industry. Spira recognized the industry was vulnerable since it performed agonizing experiments on millions of cute fluffy animals—all for products that could in no way be considered anything but a luxury. So he decided to start his campaign by approaching Revlon, the biggest and richest cosmetics company of all.

Incredibly Revlon spurned Spira’s repeated overtures to establish a meaningful dialog, no doubt thinking, “Hey, what’s the worst thing that could happen?”

And then the worst thing happened. Spira had no choice but to implement the publicity campaign that he had carefully planned in case all else failed. Full-page newspaper ads began appearing across the United States asking, “How many rabbits does Revlon blind for beauty’s sake?” More than 30 years before the launch of YouTube and Facebook, Spira had a viral campaign—one that threatened Revlon’s future as the world’s top cosmetics company.

Revlon quickly made an about-face. They poured millions into setting up research on animal testing alternatives, and in short order issued a moratorium on future animal tests. Other cosmetics companies, not wanting to be left behind, enacted similar measures.

There are countless lessons I learned from watching Henry, but the three big ones involve refusing to see your opponents as enemies, to fight only as a last resort, and to always strive to scale up your effectiveness. Henry liked to talk about finding ways to tack a zero onto your results–to go from saving one animal to ten, or from 10,000 to 100,000.

We certainly need more of this kind of thinking in the animal protection movement, as focusing on being a Level 5 Vegan can never by itself bring the massive results we need. Most estimates say that one person being vegan will, over a lifetime, save between 100 and 4000 animals. The trouble is that the United States alone slaughters about 9 billion animals a year. And 9 billion minus 4000 equals, well, 9 billion (I think it’s fair to round up.)

So the only way we’re going to see the vegan movement reach its potential is for more of us to act in big ways. We urgently need more vegans to think in the largest possible terms—scaling up their efforts to do work that impacts large numbers of animals. By the late 1990s, thanks to Henry’s relentless focus on scaling his results, I had adopted the lifetime goal of being an animal millionaire—someone whose work has kept at least a million animals out of the slaughterhouse. Just like there is a multitude of ways to earn a million dollars, there are a great many viable paths to saving a million animals. Believe it or not, anyone sufficiently motivated can attain this level of effectiveness. In my next blog entry we’ll look at how you can become an animal millionaire.


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