Matt Ball, The Accidental Activist


matt-ball1Matt Ball co-founded Vegan Outreach and served as the group’s Executive Director for more than 20 years. As Executive Director, Matt built the organization into a leading animal advocacy charity, with revenues and assets approaching $1,000,000, and many thousands of active members around the world. Under his leadership, activists distributed more than 22 million booklets exposing the treatment of farmed animals, and promoting compassionate, thoughtful living. These booklets convinced countless people to adopt more humane diets. A globally-recognized authority on animal advocacy, factory farming, vegetarian diets, and applied ethics, Matt has presented at and written for many forums over the past two decades. He is the author of many essays and several books, including: The Animal Activist’s Handbook (2007) and The Accidental Activist. In 2005, he was inducted into the Animal Rights Hall of Fame.

Before working full-time for Vegan Outreach, Matt was a Research Fellow in the Department of Biology at the University of Pittsburgh, while working on a Ph.D. in Civil and Environmental Engineering at Carnegie Mellon University. Prior to that, Matt was a Department of Energy Global Change Fellow, and he earned an M.S. in Engineering and Public Policy at Carnegie Mellon University and an M.S. in the Department of Forest Ecology at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. His undergraduate degree is in Aerospace Engineering from the University of Cincinnati, where he was a National Merit Scholar. As an Aerospace Engineering student, Matt worked for Booz, Allen, & Hamilton, and the Pratt & Whitney division of United Technologies.

Matt lives in Tucson, AZ with his wife Anne Green. Their daughter Ellen attends Pomona College in Claremont, CA. His blog is A Meaningful Life, a Better World.


Caryn Hartglass: Hello Everybody, I am Caryn Hartglass, and you are listening to It’s All About Food, repeat after me It’s All About Food, and when you through the next hour, you’re going to agree with me, if you don’t already, that it is indeed It’s All About Food.  How are you on this August 5th, 2014?  We’ve got a nice 88 degrees Fahrenheit here in New York City, and you know, I am not even feeling it, it just been so lovely, it’s been one of the best summer ever here in New York.  Not sure why, but I am not complaining, I am loving it.  Now, before we get going with my first guest, I want to tell you the great news.  Responsible Eating And Living, my non-profit organization, has apps!  We’ve got apps, so if you go to the home page and scroll down on the right side where the widgets are, you can find the iphone and ipad apps in the Apple Store.  There’s a link there, and we have an Android app and this way you don’t have to put in because it’s delicious, I know, and nutritious, but it’s kind of heavy to write.  So, we’ve got apps, very excited about that.  And, check it out!


Okay, first guest up, Matt Ball!  He is the author of many essays and several books, including the Animal Activist handbook, and now the new one, the Accidental Activist.  In 2005, he was inducted into the Animal Rights Hall of Fame.  And he is, he has done so much for this planet and for animals, and I want to welcome him to It’s All About Food.  


Caryn Hartglass: Hi Matt, how are you?

Matt Ball: Hi Caryn, I am great.  It’s an honor to be with you today.

Caryn Hartglass: Yes it is.  So, let’s just sit in that honor for a moment.  Haha.  You have done so much for so long, how do you keep going?

Matt Ball: Well, I’ve been honored to work with a lot of great people over the years.  I draw a lot of inspirations from my friends and coworkers, so it’s just been a great ride.

Caryn Hartglass: Alright, I’ve read your book and I got a few things out of it and one thing is I’ve, you’ve learned a lot over the years.

Matt Ball: Right, and I’ve made a lot of mistakes, I was an angry kid in college when I found out about factory farming, I basically acted out of anger for a long time instead of acting out of what would be the best way to create change in the world.

Caryn Hartglass: And what is the best way in your humble opinion?

Matt Ball: In my humble opinion, it’s trying to reach people where they are instead of starting where we want them to be.  It’s basic psychology if you tell people to do something, they don’t want to do that …

Caryn Hartglass: We’re all three years old in our bodies.

Matt Ball: Right.

Caryn Hartglass: Haha

Matt Ball: We are all invested in this, in the monologue that we have, that we are good people, so if you tell people that what they’re doing is bad and everything they’ve done is bad for years, they’re not going to want to believe that, they are going to invest in making you the issue and to try to protect their ego, their idea of them being a good person.  But, the point is, isn’t about who’s a good person and who’s a bad person, the point is to try to make a difference in the world, given that most people don’t know what goes on in factory farms.  If we can help people understand this, then they can make more informed choices in going forward as opposed to telling people that they’re bad and what they’re doing is bad.

Caryn Hartglass: All right, first thing you just said, you think that people don’t know what’s going on in factory farms and I find that hard to believe today.

Matt Ball: It is hard to believe, but I hear from activists all the time who say I was on a college campus today or I was leafleting at a farmers market, and people, somebody came back and said I had no idea what was going on or they said “I thought it was bad, but no idea it was this bad.” Probably, the best story I ever heard was my wife and I were holding a sign once that said “Stop Eating Animals” and a woman said who eats animals?

Caryn Hartglass: Haha … Oh gosh, yeah, right, I eat steak and uh … right, who eats animals.  Well, did she learn something from you too?

Matt Ball: Actually her daughter pulled her aside and said, talked to her, so it was very amusing.

Caryn Hartglass: Sad amusing.  Well, you know people may not know, but I think of many don’t know because they don’t want to know.

Matt Ball: Oh, yeah, sure.  It’s much easier to not know, to be able to go along with everything you’ve done growing up, what your family does, what your friends do, what your habits are, what your traditions are, I mean, it’s not an easy thing to change and it’s a problem for people like me who’ve been vegan for a long time.  You know, to me, it’s very easy.  To me, it is my habits and traditions and everything.  And it’s hard to remember what it was like 25 years ago, 27 years ago, when I first learned about these things.  I didn’t want to change, I didn’t want to know, when I first went vegetarian, I thought I was starving, I had no idea what I was doing.  And I went back to eating meat because I thought it was safer, I thought it was … the safest thing to do, the most known thing to do, so I mean, I do everything that I see people going through now when they see a video online or when they get a booklet to when they see a documentary, they don’t want to know, or they don’t have any idea what to do next.

Caryn Hartglass: Alright, let’s talk about this keyword, anger.  There’s a lot of anger and there’s a lot of anger with vegetarians and vegans amongst themselves, what are we going to do about this?

Matt Ball: Well, I think the first thing to realize is, is entirely understandable, and it’s an entirely human reaction to be angry when you see what goes on in factory farms, when you see what goes on in slaughter houses, and when you are faced with indifference or people who just don’t want to know.  So, it’s entirely understandable, it’s entirely human to be angry.  The difficult thing for me that literally took me years was to get over the anger.  Instead of arguing with people or fighting with people or even you know fighting with other vegetarians or animal rights people who didn’t feel things exactly like I do, that’s the easiest way to deal with things is to just go with the anger.  But if we really want to make a difference, we have to step back from the anger because people don’t react instructively to anger, and they …

Caryn Hartglass: No they don’t.

Matt Ball: They don’t, and it stick.  You’re not going to beat many people into becoming a vegetarian or becoming vegan.  You know it’s just hard to, it’s hard to take people where they are when you’re so badly want them to be where you are because then there’ll be fewer animals suffering.  You know so I totally and completely understand the urge to say “you have to be vegan, you have to be vegan, you have to be vegan” because that’s, you know, what we decide is the best course for us and the animals, but that’s not the best way for getting people to take the first step toward helping animals, which is what everyone has to do, everyone has to take the first step instead of us insisting on them taking the last step, the longest journey start with the first step.

Caryn Hartglass: Now there are, I don’t want to focus too much on everything in the vegetarian movement that’s ugly, but just another moment, and then we’ll get back to the real ugliness on the planet, and that is there seems to be 2 factions, where there are the all or nothing abolitionists people and then there are the welfarist, and your book gives the reasons why it’s important to move in small steps.

Matt Ball: Well, it’s just, it’s not really important to move in small steps, I mean it would be great if we could, if we could get big steps.  It’s just not the way the world works.  You know, I went for years wanting the big steps, wanting everything done right now, and the key to creating real change, it was obvious if I were just to start back on how I evolved over time, I evolved in fits and starts over the course of years, and yet once I was vegan for a while, I wanted everyone to go vegan overnight, even though that’s not even how it happened with me.  In fact, how it happens for a lot …

Caryn Hartglass: Many …

Matt Ball: of my friends, I actually know more people who went vegan overnight who went back to eating meat, than I know people who went vegan overnight and stayed vegan.

Caryn Hartglass: Okay, now, who should read The Accidental Activist?

Matt Ball: Well, I think anyone whose interested in in being an activist for the animals would find something in it of use, and there’re essays that I’ve written over the last fine decades, and there are essays by seven other people as well that bring in their unique perspective on things.  I think, and I’ve gotten a lot of feedback from a lot of people, from new people, and from long time people who enjoy it.  When Bruce Friedrich and I wrote The Animal Activist Handbook, we wrote it more like a textbook, a linear argument, starting from first principles that wasn’t working, down to specific activism, and that’s more of a, that book is more of a how-to book.  And my wife Anne Green wanted it, a more personal book, for the second book, which is why it is a collection of essays that stand on their own instead of turning into part and working it into another linear narrative.  So, and if you want the how-to of activism, starting from first principles, then the book I wrote with Bruce Friedrich, The Animal Activist Handbook is probably the better place to start.  But The Accidental Activist is more personal, a lot of times people react better to stories and something personal, how something happened for another human being, as opposed to a linear textbook type narrative.  The Accidental Activist is much more of a personal narrative, personal story.

Caryn Hartglass: All right, personal story, you’ve raised a daughter as a vegan, and she’s in college now, there must be a few stories there.

Matt Ball: Ellen is really great.  I have to admit when I, when Anne and I got married, I thought it was always, just, a course of nature, a rite of passage that all children rebel against their parents, everyone warned us, oh, she’s going to want to eat meat, in the future.  But she never has, she’s just a great kid, we’ve always try to be honest with her at an age-appropriate level, through these twenty years.  And I think that she’s always respected that and understood that we are being honest with her as opposed to forcing her to do something because it’s what we say to do.  And I think that that really resonate with her, and I think it’s interesting, her life shows that the power of example.  And she’s influenced a lot of her friends, over the years, to stop eating chicken, to go vegetarian, sometimes not even, she didn’t even know this, she was in line at a concession stand at a track meet, when she was in seventh grade, and the best runner on the team was in eighth grade and was in front of her with a friend, and she ordered like a pretzel or something, the friend said, “Don’t you want a chicken sandwich or something?”  I don’t remember her name, but the best runner said, “No, I am a vegetarian.”  And Ellen said, “Oh really, you’re a vegetarian too?”  Or “I am too,” or something like that.  And the girl turned around and said, “Well yeah, you’re the reason I am a vegetarian.” And you know, Ellen didn’t even know this, so it’s really, it’s a good story of the power that we set as our example, even if we don’t necessarily know it, or if we don’t necessarily get the feedback right away.

Caryn Hartglass: Wow that is a good one, I love that, and it is, it does show how important it is to follow our beliefs and live them and being an example.

Matt Ball: And being an example of someone that other people would like to be like, if we’re just angry and misanthropic…

Caryn Hartglass: Not a good example.

Matt Ball: It’ not going to cause a lot of people to say, “Ooh I want to be like that.  No going to parties, always angry with people, that’s looking good.”

Caryn Hartglass: Okay, now, semantics here, there seems to be some issues whether we do our work with using the word vegan or using the word vegetarian.

Matt Ball: I think it really depends on the audience.  Twenty years ago, pretty much no one had heard the word vegan in the general public, and as times went on, vegan kind of became a joke line, in comic strip…

Caryn Hartglass: It still is …

Matt Ball: It still is, but there are audiences, there are places where the word vegan is now something that’s interesting or is intriguing to people.  It’s not something that makes people say “Urg…vegan is …” They’re like “Oh, yeah, my friend so and so is a vegan, but I don’t think I could ever do it.”  And then, being there’s an example or having the stories you can tell them by how you changed or what things they can try is useful.  Now in other audiences you’re just going to get people saying “I could never be vegan” and that’s it.  The word vegetarian often is a better way to get people interested in considering the issues at hand.  And since the majority of people evolved, they take their first step and they give up this and they take their second step and they give up this and they take their third step and they give up.  The next thing become vegetarian.  It’s not as though we have to be standing at the far distance from them in the pure veganism thing, we can move forward towards them and help them start by taking that first step.  So, really depends on your audience.  It depends on the society you’re in, I think, to determine which word works best.

Caryn Hartglass: Now you talked about in your book that some of the things that we may do actually may cause more harm to animals when we think that we’re doing some good and one of them is when people decide to stop eating red meat, they go towards, what I like to call the feathered vegetable and the scaly vegetable, chicken and fish, and that can actually do even more harm.

Matt Ball: Oh, yes, absolutely.  Nick Cooney, in his book, Veganomics, he looks at the biggest study that went over people’s food choices and found that people who give up red meat eat, I think it’s, what he said was eat 60% more chicken and they also eat more fish.  Since it takes about 250 chickens to provide the same number of meals as one steer, and you are causing 250 times more animals to die, but even more than that is chickens suffer amazingly and unbelievably in factory farms, and they’re raised, they’ve been bred, so that they are in pain the whole last part of their lives. They grow so fast that their joints cannot take their weight.  I don’t want to go into all the horrors of factory farms.  Chickens and laying hens have the absolute worst situations out there.  And if we do anything that causes anyone to eat more chickens then we’re causing more suffering.

Caryn Hartglass: And, personally, I don’t think they’re any healthier than meat, there maybe a few little things in red meat that are worse than chicken, but overall in the grand scheme of things it’s not good food for us to be eating.

Matt Ball: And there’re a lot of things about, since chickens are raised so intensively and they’re given so many antibiotics and there’s so much contamination with chicken, that it’s a whole other range of health issues associated with chickens, so a lot of people who make the health argument for vegetarianism are not saying “red meat this, red meat that,” they’re pointing out all the health issues that that come with eating chicken because unfortunately chicken is consider a healthy food, or at least a healthy alternative by society as a whole, so we have to go after, we have to point out to people how unhealthy chicken really is.

Caryn Hartglass: That’s right, so you’ve been doing this for decades now, what’s next for you in your activism?

Matt Ball: Well, it’s an interesting question, and I don’t really know, the world is such a different place now than when I went vegetarian like 27 years ago.  And we’ve learned so much, and you know, activism has evolved immensely over the years so I am not exactly sure where, you know where I fit in at this particular point, I do want, what I want to do is I want to continue to inspire people to pursue effective activism that makes real difference in the world and to raise money to fund people doing effective activism.

Caryn Hartglass: Because it is all about money.  It is all about money.

Matt Ball: Yeah, and we are really limited by the amount of money we’ve, the more money we have, the more people we can reach through documentary, through online ads, through booklets, through humane education, because there are a lot of people out there who would do this work if they had the opportunity than we are able to fund at this time.

Caryn Hartglass: That’s right.  Well, Matt, thank you for speaking with me today on It’s All About Food.  And all the best with The Accidental Activist and you can visit Matt Ball at his blog, A Meaningful LifeA Better World,

Matt Ball: Thank you very much, Caryn!

Caryn Hartglass: You’re welcome!  Thank you!

Matt Ball: Thanks, bye!

Caryn Hartglass: Bye!


Transcribed by Queenie Tsui, 9/11/2014

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