Veganomics: The Surprising Science on What Motivates Vegetarians From the Breakfast Table to the Bedroom
By Nick Cooney; Brooklyn, New York: Lantern Books, 2014
Reviewed by Richard H. Schwartz, Ph.D.
Since I believe that a major societal shift toward vegetarian diets is essential to helping avert a climate catastrophe and other environmental disasters, I looked forward to reading Veganomics by Nick Cooney with great interest. I was not the least disappointed.
Cooney Is very successful in accomplishing his book’s two main aims: to (1) “be an interesting and sometimes entertaining look at who vegetarians are and what makes them tick,” and, more seriously and importantly for vegetarian outreach, (2) “share research that would enable vegetarian advocates to be more effective in their work.”
While every main point is backed up by a reference to one or more studies, the book is far from a dull recitation of statistics and suggestions. It is very clearly written and very easy to follow. Cooney prevents facts, rather than philosophies, and data, rather than assumptions. He indicates when studies provide inconclusive or contradictory results.
To help vegetarians become more effective Cooney provides responses based on a wide range of research to the following four important questions: “Why do some people give up meat and what prevents others from doing the same? How do people transition from being a meat-eater to being a vegetarian, and are there ways to make that process easier? What types of people are most likely to go vegetarian? And why do so many vegetarians eventually go back to eating meat?”
Among his responses: The main reasons people give up meat are health and concern for how animals are treated. Environmental concerns are a distant third, but this has been becoming increasingly important as people become more aware of climate and other environmental threats. People who become vegetarians gradually are more likely to remain vegetarians and become vegans than people who suddenly make the dietary change. About 75 percent of vegetarians revert to meat eating because they find living a vegetarian life difficult or inconvenient or they conclude wrongly that vegetarian diets are not healthy. Hence the vegetarian movement should not only stress the importance of dietary changes but also provide recipes for delicious meals, advice on how to be healthy as a vegetarian, and tips on how to prepare and find vegetarian meals, especially when eating with friends. People who are most likely to adopt a vegetarian diet include women, especially single women, young people, smart and artistic people, Democrats and liberals, LGBT, non-religious people, and people living in cities.
Among the book’s interesting conclusions that most vegetarians seldom consider: to help the most animals, vegetarians should focus on getting people to reduce their consumption of chicken, eggs, and fish, especially farmed fish. Of the farmed animals killed for food in the U.S., 92 percent are chickens (both meat and egg-laying) and fish. Promoting a decrease in the consumption of beef might be counter productive since people might switch to eating chicken, with the result that many more animals will be mistreated and killed. People should be advised to switch to vegetarianism gradually, rather than abruptly, as this will increase the chances that they will become and remain vegetarians. Also, people should generally be encouraged to switch to vegetarianism rather than veganism initially, because most people look at veganism as being too extreme.
Adding to its great value, this pioneering book includes:
· a checklist of recommendations that will help people shift to vegetarianism;
· key recommendation from social psychological research, based on material from Cooney’s other valuable 2011 Lantern book, Change of Heart: what Psychology Can Teach Us About Spreading Social Change.
· A complete list of the sources for the studies cited, enabling interested readers to seek additional information.
In summary, Nick Cooney has provided a very readable, well-researched, carefully argued analysis, which should be read by every vegetarian who wants to know about other vegetarians and how to effectively increase their numbers. One would have to wade through a tremendous amount of material from many sources to find the valuable information and recommendations in this book.
Because Cooney’e book is very thought provoking, I want to share some further thoughts. While I believe strongly that vegetarian advocates should read and act on the information in Cooney’s book, I feel that far more is required to break through the denial, apathy, misinformation, and resistance that vegetarian activists face, to help create a more vegetarian world. As Cooney points out, despite the many years of vegetarian advocacy and the increased availability of veg foods, only about three percent of Americans say they never eat meat, poultry, or fish, and only about one percent of Americans claim that they never eat these foods or eggs or dairy products. So, I think some radical approaches should be considered.
In view of the very negative impacts of animal-based diets on human health, climate change, hunger, resource usage, and much more, we should call the production and consumption of meat and other animal products what they are: madness and sheer insanity, illogical and self-destructive behavior that now threatens the entire planet! And we should respond not only with rationality and by working to increase awareness of the realities, but also with the moral passion, what some call the moral madness, of the biblical prophets.
Here are some examples:
1. Cooney points out that religious values are very seldom given in western countries as reasons to become vegetarians. This is an example of the tragedy of religion – its failure to apply religious teachings to address current issues. For many years I have argued that animal-based diets violate basic Jewish (and other religions’) teachings on preserving human health, treating animals with compassion, protecting the environment, conserving natural resources, and helping hungry people. No religious leader has contradicted my arguments, because the facts are so strongly on the vegetarian side. Yet the vegetarian movement has let religious leaders duck the issues. Time to respectfully but aggressively and persistently challenge religious leaders to start addressing the issues and applying the religious values they profess and teach, just as the prophets challenged the leaders of their time when they failed to live up to religion’s ethical teachings.
2. Cooney also points out that environmental reasons trail far behind health and concern for animals as reasons for people to be vegetarians. Yet, many recent studies have indicated the huge contributions of animal-based diets to climate change, hunger, resource scarcities, and other environmental threats to all life on Earth. It is becoming increasingly apparent that a major societal shift to plant-based diets is essential to efforts to avert climate and other catastrophes and move our imperiled planet onto a sustainable path. Vegetarian groups and individuals should stress this message at every opportunity until it becomes common knowledge and addressing the threats becomes a major societal priority. This is essential to enable a decent world for future generations.
3., Cooney discusses that many people remain meat-eaters and many vegetarians revert to eating meat because they feel that vegetarian diets are unhealthy. Of course, as many peer-reviewed extensive studies have shown, this is far from the truth. Vegetarians should argue that it is “medical malpractice” if doctors do not stress the many health benefits of plant-based diets and should organize demonstrations at hospitals, clinics and doctors’ offices, urging that medical practitioners stress the health benefits of plant-based diets.
In short, every available opportunity should be taken to increase awareness that animal-based diets are having devastating effects on individuals and the planet. Like the biblical prophets, we should challenge the status quo that is ignoring that shifts to vegetarian diets would lead to a more compassionate, healthy, just, peaceful, and environmentally sustainable world. Many of the arguments in Cooney’s book would be very helpful in this effort.
Richard H. Schwartz, Ph.D.
Professor Emeritus, College of Staten Island
Author of Judaism and Vegetarianism, Judaism and Global Survival, Mathematics and Global Survival, and Who Stole My Religion? Revitalizing Judaism and Applying Jewish Values to Help Heal Our Imperiled Planet, and 200 articles at JewishVeg.com/schwartz
President Emeritus, Jewish Vegetarians of North America (www.JewishVeg.com); President, Society Of Ethical and Religious Vegetarians (SERV):
Associate producer of A SACRED DUTY (www.aSacredDuty.com);
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