For the last twenty years, the philosopher Tom Regan
, pioneering author of The Case for Animal Rights
, and his wife Nancy have run the Culture and Animals Foundation
, which has provided grants to artists and academics on the subject of animal advocacy. Their annual conference in Raleigh, North Carolina, in October always attracted a small (about 100-150) but thoughtful crowd. I’ve always liked this conference because of its intimacy and because the speakers aren’t the usual suspects but bring different, and sometimes challenging perspectives, to bear on the issues.
For the last two years, Kim Stallwood
and the newly named Animals and Society Institute
have cooperated with CAF and have expanded both the mission and size of the conference. This year, the conference was titled “The Power of One”
and had 250 registrants, and the highlights were to be evening lectures from Tony Banks
, former rabblerousing British Member of Parliament and animal advocate and now a member of the House of Lords, and John Mackey, CEO and founder of Whole Foods
Well, Banks couldn’t make it (something to do with flight cancellations), so Mackey was the lone star. His presentation was part corporate PowerPoint (how big Whole Foods is and how much bigger it’s getting) and part impassioned plea for understanding as they pioneer animal welfare standards
for their supply of meat and dairy in their stores. Mackey, a “near vegan,” had been conscientized when PETA
and Viva! USA
picketed his annual general meeting in 2003 and he had begun an e-mail correspondence with Lauren Ornelas
about duck-meat in the store. He had spent the summer reading (always a good sign!) books (not ours, not a good sign!) about factory farming and animal rights, and had made a personal decision to change.
It was curious sensation for me as I listened to him. As a businessman myself (of sorts) I could sympathize with his stated challenges of balancing doing good things with trying to grow and make money and with his rather tortured relationship with capitalism in general. As an increasingly pragmatic animal activist I could see that he was genuine in his efforts to push himself and his company further into raising his suppliers’ standards of how animals are kept and killed without putting them or him out of business. However, as someone who doesn’t run a $5 billion company with enormous assets that is currently #479 in Forbes
magazine’s Fortune 500, I found his lamentations that he no longer is in control of the decision-making of his own company and that the managers of the stores have ultimate discretion over what goes on in their stores a little disingenuous. I also found it hard to believe that the loss of business if he stopped selling foie gras and lobsters would be so large as to make it impossible for him to continue: in making that comment, he sounded like every other risk-averse corporate CEO.
The response of the audience was by turns admiring and annoyed. Many animal activists are so beaten down by the prevailing culture that they are thrilled when they meet someone even half-decent who speaks the language of compassion and corporate accountability. Others, naturally, are fundamentally opposed to free-market capitalism and nothing that any corporation does can be considered good. The rest of us cast a wary eye on the titans of industry, recognizing that markets can make realities change very quickly but that corporations can often be the last to recognize the need for change. The issue of consumption and energy expenditure to bring the products to market from all over the world was not addressed at all. Apparently, the American public still needs ten different types of apple to choose from.
As to the conference itself, Carol Buckley spoke about her elephant sanctuary
, Karen and Michael Iacobbo
rediscovered about vegetarian America, Ingrid Newkirk
offered a call for animal activists to embrace their radical message—since radicals are the only ones who have ever changed anything—while Patrick Kwan
talked about his family of activism and student involvement, and Tom Regan gave a rousing call for us to remember the vegetarian and animal activists who have gone before. Jill Robinson of Animals Asia
highlighted the condition for bears on the bear bile farms of China while Sgt. Sherry Schlueter showed how humane law enforcement need not sound like an oxymoron but be an extension of stopping violence to human and non-human animals.
I like this conference—I like the feeling of it and I like the fact that the people who attend buy books. I’d like it to be bigger, but not too much bigger, since it would lose its intimacy. I recommend you try to attend next year.