Kindness is King: Interview with Philip Wollen

Philip Wollen is an amazing man. In his mid-thirties, with the world at his fingertips and the vice president of Citibank, he “gave it all away” and dedicated his life to helping animals and humans. Now, he runs the Winsome Constance Kindness Trust, a group dedicated to animal rights and social justice across the globe, supporting over 400 organizations and running the “Kindness House” which you’ll read about below. But Philip was thrust into the AR community’s spotlight with his powerful speech at a debate a few months ago in his native country of Australia. At a Wheeler Centre debate entitled “Animals Should Be Off The Menu” Mr. Wollen argued strongly for the affirmative, with one of the most moving, dire speeches of animal rights I’ve ever heard. He was kind enough to answer some questions for me so we can learn more about this inspirational man.

Again, thank you for your time. I’d like to start by asking what your overall reaction was to the outcome of the Wheeler Centre debate. The audience was indeed moved by your team’s arguments, from 65% to 73.6%. Was this a success, in your eyes?

I was confident in my facts, ethics, and values. But I have learned that going into a debate one can never be confident of the vote. The animal industrial complex, a term I use to describe the industries that exploit powerless animals, is very powerful and well-resourced. The audience came from the Food, Wine and Restaurant industry, which massively dominates the food industry. They actually promoted the debate. In fact, the high profile TV chef speaking against us stated that they had done a survey of the audience before the debate, and proudly claimed that 78% of the attendees were meat eaters. What was gratifying was that after the debate  our “anti-meat” vote went up, the undecided vote went down, and the meat industry vote went down too, losing the debate by a “whopping margin” (to quote the adjudicator). They only got 19% of the vote! What is most rewarding is the overwhelmingly positive feedback we received from ordinary people around the world.

It is not for me to claim the success or otherwise. But judging by the fact that over 100,000 people have seen it, and the votes were overwhelmingly in favour of the proposition, I guess many people thought it was a success.

Myself included, the AR community around the world has embraced your powerful ten minute speech at the debate, which seems to touch on almost all of the issues regarding using animals for food. Was this a speech you felt particularly proud of, and did you expect the reaction in social media that it received?

Thank you. I was deeply humbled by the positive public response I received in the media. Oddly enough, I prefer to have a low profile. I like to be invisible. In fact, Rupert Murdoch’s press described me as reclusive. So, I was quite overwhelmed by the quantity of mail I received. And I am embarrassed to tell you, I did not have a Facebook account until 3 weeks ago. I still don’t have a twitter account! Social media has been a foreign land to me.

How long have you called yourself a vegan? What does the term mean to you?

I have been vegan for around ten years, and vegetarian for much longer. I used to be a meat eater, for which I am profoundly ashamed. But now that I am vegan I can look in the mirror with a clear conscience. I have observed that our detractors have hijacked the word “vegan” and use it as a sneering term of abuse. In fact, I covered the issue of hijacked language in a lecture in India. In my opinion, the most beautiful word ever written, in any country, in any language, at any time, came from India, from the Upanishads, 5,000 years ago. “Ahimsa. …non-violence to any living being”. I love this word and I want it to become a truly global phenomenon.

So I don’t see myself simply as vegan, Australian, male, or whatever arbitrary label others put on me. I am “Ahimsan”. An overarching noun which best captures most of my beliefs. I reject violence, not just in what I eat and wear. But I also (try to) do so in what I say, and what I think. We may be American, Indian, Australian, German, English, or Palestinian. We may be Hindu, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Sikh, Jain or Jew (or no religion at all). But if we are to live a truly authentic life we can easily share common ground – without sacrificing our other beliefs. That beautiful meeting place is “Ahimsa”. Because it describes our character. Period. It says we oppose violence in everything we do.

I casually mentioned this term in conversation with the remarkable Member of Parliament, Mrs Maneka Gandhi. She remarked. “Well, one day the world will see Ahimsans as educated, enlightened and elegant people”.

Many vegans and animal rights activists in the United States may not be familiar with your organization, the Kindness Trust. Would you give an overview of what it is?

I was a merchant banker. And in my travels around the world I saw unimaginable violence, cruelty and brutality to human and non-human animals. It shocked me to the core. I decided on my 40th birthday to give away everything I owned with warm hands, and to die broke. I have to admit, so far I am right on budget! So I have supported 400-500 projects in some 40 countries. Basically focussed on our “five fingers” – children, animals, the environment, the terminally ill and aspiring youth. Schools, orphanages, shelters, clinics, sanctuaries, biogas plants, disaster recovery, animal birth control programs, humanitarian films, the arts, water wells, vegan food mobile restaurants, “kindness farms”, ambulances, oncology work, road trauma victims, that sort of thing. Basically working in countries where prevailing cost and need structures enable me to get maximum value (or leverage) on the funds available. Bang for my buck, if you like.

Describe “The Kindness House” and it how it integrates into your outreach and advocacy.

Kindness House is one of our more unusual projects, started as an “experiment” actually. It is an incubator for ambitious NGOs who “punch above their weight” and we hope they will change the world for the better. We started Kindness House 8 years ago. It is a large (nearly 40,000 square feet) commercial and retail building in a high profile, vibrant, main street, close to the Parliament and in the middle of a thriving retail precinct. It is surrounded by many of Melbourne’s finest vegan and vegetarian restaurants.

We provide fully serviced offices to around 300 incredible smart and dedicated young people, working for around 40 NGOs. The building has all the facilities any office could want – air conditioning, heating, communications, high speed internet, boardrooms, training rooms, kitchens, meditation rooms, movie theatre, elevator, cleaning contractors, security patrols, state of the art fire safety systems, bike rooms, and mail facilities. 75% of the groups pay nothing at all. We cover all the costs of running the campus. All they need to do it work hard for their chosen causes. And they do.

We have two amusing clauses in our leases. One, if you eat animals in my building, I kick you out. And two, if you have a dog, and you DON’T bring him to the office, we kick you out.

We have some wonderful groups on the Kindness Campus including Greenpeace, Wilderness Society, Lawyers for Animals, Sea Shepherd, Beyond Zero Emissions, Australian Wildlife Protection Council, Artists for Kids, Wildlife Victoria, Peace Brigades, Very Edible gardens, Animal Active, Vegetarian Victoria, Seven Women, Horse Racing Kills, Oscars Law, the National Multicultural Broadcasting Council, Australian Orangutan Project, to name some of them. The “incubation” strategy is to bring in small NGOs, provide them with proper professional office facilities, help them grow with advice, and funding, and when they have reached a size big enough to be self-sustaining, let them move to commercial buildings, while we bring in the next fledgling NGO. So far it has worked very well.

In the US, we have a small, but dedicated AR community, and a growing number of vegans (over 7 million as of 2011). Do you feel like Australia’s level of “kindness,” and compassion towards animals, is growing at a similar rate?

Australia tends to mirror the US in many ways. There is lots of excellent work being done in the US – so Australia is benefitting greatly from the work of Colin Campbell, Neal Barnard, and John McDougall etc. Regarding veganism in Australia, I have to say, Australia is a bit like a curate’s egg. Good in parts! Melbourne is undoubtedly the vegan capital of Australia. Fitzroy is the heart, and Kindness House is slap bang in the centre of Fitzroy. Other cities have vegan groups too, and they are growing too. However, I suspect the growth rate of veganism is smaller than the growth rate of animal consumption. India and China are the major drivers of this dangerous equation.

At the Wheeler debate, you said, quite coherently, “I’ll cut you some slack – I’ll let you eat all the animals already sitting in the factory farms, just stop producing anymore, okay?” This mirrors the dilemma that many countries have of dog and cat populations, one of over-population, and a need to “turn off the machine.” Do you feel passionate about this issue, one of dog and cat breeding?

I am frequently asked simplistic questions accusingly “what would you do with the millions of animals in factory farms today? Would you build sanctuaries for them? And how would you fund it?” So to obliterate their vapid straw man question I say bluntly “I’ll cut you some slack – I’ll let you eat all the animals already sitting in the factory farms, just stop producing anymore. Okay. Now are you happy?” It usually shuts them up because they are not expecting such a check-mate reply.

And yes, the dog and cat population is a serious problem. I support a large number of animal birth control projects (ABC) which involves Catch, Neuter, Vaccinate and Release (CNVR). For example, dogs are caught in the streets of India by dog catchers and brought to the shelters in the trucks. They are spayed, natured and vaccinated against rabies and given a general health check. A couple of days later they are released on the same street corner on which they were caught. It is now an unassailable fact that killing dogs does not solve the problem. Dogs from neighbouring areas migrate into the newly vacant areas, or the breeding rates increase to match the carrying capacity of the territory. So releasing the neutered dog to the same area solves that problem. Of course, it has also been a boon in the fight against rabies, which used to be quite prevalent in countries like India, but thanks to the work of many NGOs, the practice of ABC CNVR has become well established, and rabies has been reduced considerably.

You have a unique history as being quite involved in the financial industry for many years. What did you think of the Occupy Wall Street movement, and does it intersect with your idea of spreading kindness?

I understood their motives. The egregious greed we see nowadays in the financial services sector is nothing short of disgraceful. They have privatised their profits and socialized their losses. I saw the movement as a cry from the small end of town to the big end. The clear message is that there is something systemically rotten in the corporate governance regime in most major economies. Of course, one can debate the methods used by the movement in some places, but when the powerless are muzzled, they will respond in ways that disrupt the easy flow of commerce. Smart business people will be listening intently to the message. Business does not need to be red fang and claw capitalism. Creating long term shareholder value is not simply pushing up revenues, driving down costs, concocting dodgy creative accounting, and increasing price/earnings per share multiples. It is about developing long term respectful relationships with all the direct stakeholders. And that includes staff, customers, suppliers, the community, and government. The indirect stakeholders, of course, include the environment and the non-human animals who are rarely on the radar.

How did you get involved with Sea Shepherd? Does their brand of direct action stand aside from some of the more peaceful forms of animal rights activism?

Eight years ago Sea Shepherd’s (only) ship, the Farley Mowatt, arrived in Melbourne.  I attended a small lecture at the university and was struck by the sincerity and courage of the young crew. I discovered how financially impoverished they were! I saw that Japanese killing whales in the South Ocean whale sanctuary of Antarctica (under the so called guise of “research”) was indefensible under any circumstances. So I got up on the stage and made the captain, what was at the time, a significant financial grant. I also donated free furnished offices to establish Sea Shepherd Headquarters in Australia for their campaigns in this hemisphere. So Sea Shepherd has been in my building ever since. And I am very happy to say, has grown rapidly. They now have 4 ships, a couple of helicopters and local chapters springing up all over Australia and around the world. I am always perplexed when people question Sea Shepherd’s “direct” action. It seems a tautology. What is “indirect” action? I wonder what any of us would do if we saw a kitten or a puppy being beaten to death in the street. Indirect action? We know that it is cruel, and also against the law. Well, whaling in the whale sanctuary is cruel, and it is in breach of many international laws and treaties. Indeed, the Federal Court in Australia has unequivocally said so. And Sea Shepherd has never hurt anybody in its campaigns. I guess in life we sometimes need to take sides.

I frequently have dinner on the Sea Shepherd ships with their respective captains and crews. The food is vegan. The conversation is polite, gentle, compassionate and respectful. They are peace-loving, gracious people. But they are not passive. Like all of us, they do not avert their gaze when violence is inflicted on powerless, endangered animals. They too take sides. They are enforcing laws that should be enforced by governments. If you want Sea Shepherd to stop, the solution is easy. Get all governments to behave ethically – enforce international law.

You support many groups via the Kindness Trust, from PETA to Animals Asia, and many human animal social justice groups. After dealing with so many activists, what is the key to effective activism, in your mind?

This is a hard one, and many activists have it to a greater or lesser extent. Single mindedness, attention to detail, intelligence, integrity and commitment to the “ahimsa” philosophy, relentlessness, and the ability to listen, and to communicate effectively, the ability to work with activists from other disciplines. After all forest campaigners have the same ultimate goal as animal rights campaigners for livestock. And most of all, perspective! They should realize that we have already won the battle in the marketplace of ideas. Nobody can seriously dispute the vegan facts. Industry fights back because they are motivated not by reason, but by ritual. I quoted Upton Sinclair in my rebuttal during the debate “It is impossible to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on him not understanding it”. Even the quiet and reserved Peter Singer, laughed and applauded! Our challenge is to fight both the ignorant and the deliberately obtuse.  There is a wonderful saying in Swahili “It is impossible to wake up a man who is only pretending to be asleep”.

Again, thank you for your time, and feel free to add anything we did not cover:

The world is crying out for only two things. Leadership. And the truth. We know the truth. Now let’s get some real leaders.

Our animal cousins have survived millions of years of evolution on this planet. They have earned the right to share it with us in peace. They have waited long enough. As I said in the debate. “The brutes and the bullies have been Goliath. But David is coming.”

Please watch the entire debate featuring Philip Wollen here, and be sure to check out the Kindness Trust’s website. Photos from Philip Wollen.

  • Jacqui

    Excellent interview – brilliant answers from a man who is creating, living and breathing a better world for everyone!

  • OneHappyTable.com

    Love this. I cried but they were happy tears!

    • http://www.thenailthatsticksup.com/ Sam

      He is a powerful writer, for sure!

  • Pingback: By Any Means Necessary (Reflections on AR 2012) | The Nail That Sticks Up()

  • Irismead

    Love this…lots of admiration for your work.

  • Shantimre

    Thomas Jefferson said: “I tremble for my species when I reflect that God is just” . But listening to Mr. Wollen´s speech I think there is still hope. I absolutely agree that we can just say “I will not buy this”, no demand, no offer.

  • Anand siva

    Salute in admiration, Sir!