A few weeks ago I joined Michael Barticel on his podcast The Good People Effect to chat about charity, asteroids, and everything in between. You can now listen in here!
A few months ago, I wrote a post on ‘How to influence stuff‘. My motivation for this was that I’m becoming increasingly convinced that it’s easier than people think to have influence organisations and individuals to change or do stuff differently. People assume that it’s hard and then don’t try, which becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Here I want to talk about some of the stuff I’ve tried that didn’t work, because it would be remiss of me to only talk about the stuff that did work.
What hasn’t worked
Similar to what I said in the first post about getting websites/organisations to change stuff, I try asking podcasts to make corrections to factually incorrect statements, especially when I think it’s an important topic.
In this podcast, the host said some factually incorrect (and frankly, defamatory) things about the Good Food Institute. The most surprising to me was that the host claimed GFI was a business that could be sold to Monsanto. GFI is a charity, and can decidedly not be sold to Monsanto. I emailed the host and asked them to change this and other wrong things. They refused, and even attacked my character. Luckily, it didn’t escalate further, but this is an example of some wasted emails.
I also emailed Sam Harris after he misrepresented the field of wild-animal suffering research on his podcast (through ignorance, rather than malice, I’m sure – I’m usually a big fan of Harris’ podcast and work). I emailed him asking for a correction to be issued, but never heard back.
I’m not sure I did anything particular wrong in either of these cases, it’s just a matter of not being 100% successful. I still think you are more likely to affect change in this way than you probably think. I did have some minor success with the Skeptics Guide to the Universe when they spoke about charity and overhead. They claimed something to the effect of ‘a charity with 10% overhead is always better than one with 20% overhead’ (if you are familiar with effective altruism, you will instantly see why this is not necessarily true).
The did read my comments in full on the podcast which added nuance, however they had a minor retreat to their original position before ending the segment. I’ll still chalk that up as a win.
Op-eds and letters to the editor
I’ve written a lot of op-eds, opinion pieces and letters to the editor, mostly in Australian local and national newspapers, and am still yet to get one published. Part of me wants to chalk this up to the fact that the things I’m pitching are controversial and therefore not something the papers want to publish (e.g. “Care about X? Then go vegan.”). But part of me thinks there has to be more to it. There must be tricks.
The below are some tips that have been offered to me, mostly by Jacy Reese (who has been successful at getting op-eds etc. published on topics similar to what I write about).
- Make sure you find the personal email address of the opinion editor, or at the least.
- Calling them and making a personal contact is even better. Engaging with them on social media, especially Twitter, could be a good way to do this. Bonus points if you can make it relevant to something they work on.
- If a journalist writes about something you can comment on, just try emailing them saying “Hey, I’m a source, reach out if I can be useful”.
- Lead with your credentials, especially if they are relevant, and if you have published anything before (even online articles) lead with a mention of your best one.
- Have your submission text in the body of the email rather than an attachment. It is more likely to get viewed, and may allay and concerns of viruses.
- Make sure the submission is timely, especially relating to a recent major news event.
I use social media a lot – arguably too much. I sometimes use Twitter and Facebook to try and pressure organisations into changing their position, much in the same way as I use email as I mentioned in the previous post (sometimes I use both). I don’t seem to have a lot of success with this – I do better with email or phone calls. I think there is a decent chance that social media is just too easy to brush over or ignore. There might be an argument for a concentrated social media campaign involving a lot of people, but as one person you’re unlikely to do much, especially for a big organisation, unless you’re pretty famous.
Three notable examples of times I’ve tried to influence via social media are:
- I tried to convince a BBQ day for prostate cancer (or something) that they were being super hypocritical because of the impact of processed/red meat on prostate cancer. They just gave me some stock-standard responses.
- I got a non-vegan meal on a flight after I ordered a vegan meal, and they ended up having no vegan meals on board. I tried to a) get them to change their policy (their meals listed as ‘vegan’ were all non-vegan) and b) get a refund via social media, but got nowhere. In the end, I called them and got a $100 flight voucher (if you ever order a vegan meal and don’t get one, don’t forget to try and claim your voucher!).
- I often leave Facebook comments on posts by Greens (an Australian political party) members, calling into attention their hypocrisy (they’re all about environment but are anti-GMO, anti-nuclear and pro-animal agriculture). The party or members have never responded, but I once called their office and said I was a past supporter of the Greens (not untrue) but was concerned that their blatant hypocrisy was harming their reputation. The staffer thanked me. As an aside, there’s something to be said for approaching such conversations as a concerned supporter rather than an angry external.
I also spend a lot of time debating people online. Mostly, this just makes me angry. A few times, I have been able to shift someones’ opinion, but most of the time, we talk past each other. I think there are definitely better things one can do with their time. I’ve even gotten a few death threats, which isn’t great. I sometimes try to salvage some of my effort by taking the good parts of my comments and turning them into blog posts.
As well as successfully contacting a bunch of famous/important people for advice or help, I’ve been unsuccessful with a bunch as well. Same goes for scholarships, entering essay/writing competitions and correcting news articles. Not much to say here – sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Volume (as well as actually trying) is the key.
If you order a vegan meal and it comes out with non-vegan food in it*, should you send it back or should you eat it? I see this question come up a lot on social media and it seems to have people pretty divided, so I just thought I’d formally write up my opinion. Hopefully it helps you decide what you would do if it happens to you.
In short, I would almost always** send the meal back. If I’m with non-vegans, it shows them I take this whole ethics thing seriously, and it makes a statement to restaurant. It might even stop it from happening to the next vegan. Some restaurants are pretty clueless. I once went to a place that served chicken stock in a little bowl as a side to an item listed as vegan on their menu. I asked if it was vegetable stock, and they said no, it was chicken. “Why, do you not eat chicken?”
“Well, I ordered the vegan option.” They seemed pretty confused about the whole thing, so hopefully making a point about it stops it from being served with chicken stock in the future.
Also, especially in a non-restaurant setting, if non-vegan friends or colleagues see you accepting animal products, they may be more likely to serve you them in the future.
I guess there is the counter-point of people seeing you as ‘not flexible’ which might make people see veganism more negatively, or might slightly nudge someone away from trying it. My intuition is that this effect would be small, but I’m happy for someone to try and change my mind. There is the issue of ‘wasting food’, but again, one meal would make pretty little difference to global food waste.
I’ve also had many vegan pizzas come with dairy cheese instead of no cheese or vegan cheese, which I send back. I used to work at a pizza restaurant, and I know first hand that food sent back as a mistake tends to get eaten by the staff. This definitely mitigates the food waste argument.
I have been told second hand about one individual who has risen fairly high in the US public servant sphere (I have been asked not to share their name – let’s call them Casey).
Casey wields a lot of influence, and their job affects the wellbeing of a lot of sentient beings both now and in the future. They often have meals with very important and powerful people. Casey is a vegan for ethical reasons, but they are not very public about it, and when it comes to eating with said important people, rumour has it that they have taken up eating meat again. This is my guesswork, but I’m assuming this is because Casey is worried about how they might be perceived after revealing that they are vegan, and that they believe their job is so important that the possibility of harming their effectiveness is too great to risk.
A couple of comments on this. I can’t share with you what Casey actually does for work, so you’ll have to take my word on this, but I really believe that their job is so important that this is a valid concern. What’s important to maximise is your impact on suffering and wellbeing, not ones’ personal purity (which should just be a tool for the former).
However, with the knowledge I have on the situation (granted, not as much as Casey has), I disagree with their (assumed) conclusion. I don’t know how much being publicly but quietly vegan would harm ones’ reputation and effectiveness in certain circles. I also think that there could be some benefit in being a super important person that also happens to be vegan.
Having said that, I am open to that being the best course of action. In extreme cases, I might even do the same, as hard as it would be to bring myself to do. However, I want to stress that I don’t think I’ve come across a situation yet in my life where I would have been better off pretending to not be vegan (and I’ve had dinner with the CEO of a multi-billion dollar company), and I don’t think that most people ever will.
One thing I haven’t discussed yet is that some vegans might just be totally disgusted by the prospect of eating animal products. This seems like a fairly valid reason to send the food back. Your personal wellbeing should be equally weighted with that of others. I personally enjoy the unami taste (meaty taste) of food, which is why I can eat realistic meat alternatives while some other vegans can’t. But I would still be disgusted by the knowledge that I am eating an actual animal or their excretion.
In short, I’d advocate for sending back the meal.
* For clarity, I’m talking about something like any of the following; your vegan pizza comes out with dairy cheese or meat on it, your veggie burger is actually a beef burger, your laksa has fish stock in it instead of vegetable stock, or your meal comes out with a non-vegan side.
** Just meaning that I would require extenuating circumstances to not send it back.
I enjoyed Michael Plant’s article in The Conversation today, ‘Which party’s manifesto promises would make Britain happiest?‘ Plant attempts an evidence-based approach to choosing which party to vote for by reading their manifestos. Despite it being basic and limited, I’m very glad it exists, and I think there should be more attempts to select an objectively best party to vote for.
Call me a radical, but I think people should vote for the party that will do the most to increase happiness. If a party’s policies won’t reduce misery and help people have more pleasant, fulfilling lives, what are they good for?
You may recall that myself and Hugo Burgin attempted a similar analysis in 2016 for the Australian Federal election. As we said then, “We say ‘attempted’ because such analyses are incredibly complex (which is possibly why none exist), although we believe that some attempt at picking the best party is better than no attempt.”
Voting correctly is a lot more important than people often think it is. Again, in 2016 Burgin and I said:
“People often say that you’re unlikely to have any impact when voting, or that the impact of your vote is so small that it’s not worth thinking about, but this is only true if you only care about yourself. In Doing Good Better, Will MacAskill simplistically estimates that the expected value of voting for a US citizen, when spread out across all citizens in USA, is around $5,200 USD (~$7,000 AUD at the time of writing). That is to say, on average, $5,200 of the budget will be spent differently as a result of your vote (see the appendix for a more detailed explanation of why this is so). This means it’s very important to vote for the party that will spend the budget in the best way possible.”
I do have some concerns around Plant’s analysis. I want to stress first that I’m not necessarily criticising Plant for this. He was (presumably) operating alone, with limited time and resources, and also had a limited number of words on the article to play with. I’m just outlining what I would want in an ideal analysis. Having said that, my concerns are as follows.
Plant doesn’t account for non-human animals (edit – he did mention them briefly, I just missed it), which is a major gap, though he does try to account for non-British citizens. He also doesn’t seem to look at the future or far future. Needless to say, far future effects (e.g. 1,000 years plus) are extremely difficult to predict, so again, this is not a criticism of Plant. He relies on manifestos and promises, which won’t necessarily be kept. An ideal analysis would look at history and likelihood of individual parties meeting their promises.
One reservation around these types of analyses in general is that people might use them to come out with the answer they want, whether consciously or subconsciously, although there are ways around this with sufficient oversight.
My ideal outcome looks something like this: A group of benevolent individuals grants an organisation funding say 1 year prior to an election. This organisation can’t be a non-profit in many countries (e.g. Australia), because they are not legally able to support any one political party. This organisation then produces and releases the report shortly before the election. The majority of the population, being motivated by maximising wellbeing of all sentience over the course of the universe (I wish), votes accordingly.
There is a very real question as to how many people would trust such an analysis. There will probably be some people who will never change the party they support out of sheer mistrust that it didn’t pick their party. The trust may have to be built up slowly over several elections and with strong, impartial oversight. I have no idea how to do this, but I do think it is important and worth dedicating time and money to. People have $5,200 worth of impact every time they vote, and we surely want to see that impact being positive.
As you may have been aware, the Reducetarian Summit was on in New York city last weekend. I went because I was on the fence about whether the ‘reducetarian approach’ to animal advocacy was a good idea (I’ve written about that here), and I wanted to learn more. It was also a pretty great networking opportunity, and it is always nice to meet in person people you have been engaging with online for years.
I also had the pleasure of interviewing Tobias Leenaert, the Vegan Strategist, for my podcast, which you can find here. We talked about the pros and cons of a reducetarian approach. Tobias advocates for an ‘adaptive’ approach, which I like. It involves being flexible and using whichever approach works best for a given situation*. You can also find criticism of this discussion here.
Overall, the talks were mostly on par with what you might expect to see at a conventional animal advocacy conference. There were talks on the impacts of animal agriculture on animals, global health and the environment, as well as on cellular agriculture/plant-based meat alternatives and political lobbying. The main difference with a conventional conference was there a relative lack of discussion about animal rights.
Interestingly, it seemed like most people at the conference were vegan, which surprised me. I had figured that the conference might mostly appeal to people wanting to reduce but not eliminate their animal product consumption, but it seems to have been mostly people with the same mindset as me. They either wanted to learn about the approach, or wanted to improve their advocacy and network.
There weren’t really talks on the pros and cons of a reducetarian approach as I was expecting, so I can’t say I changed my opinion much. I slightly updated towards thinking that reducetarian advocacy could be good in some situations, but as I mentioned previously, I still hold reservations about the way it is currently being done by some people.
The conference was protested by about half a dozen individuals, lead by Harrison Nathan, who has been a critic of various aspects of effective altruism in an animal advocacy context. They stood out the front on the first day with signs, and I went to speak with them. Nathan and I have engaged online about his disagreement with the reducetarian approach, and I share many of the same reservations. I am glad to see that Nathan’s objections come from believing that reducetarian advocacy is ineffective, rather than the more deontologist belief that advocating for anything less than total veganism is always wrong.
I had advised against a protest for fear of it harming the reputation of vegans and reinforcing stereotypes, but I stand pleasantly corrected (as far as I can tell). The protest was very calm and reasonable, and for getting across their views, it seemed successful**.
One recurring theme of the panel talks was a general positivity towards organic food, and a general disdain towards GMO food. This frustrates me. I won’t delve in to the science now, except to say that there is no evidence, health or environmental, saying that we should preference organic or non-GMO food. In fact, GMO food can be designed to have higher food yields, be more nutritious, and more disease resistant. As my friend Michael Selden eloquently put it, “I’m an environmentalist so I’m pro GMO. It’s that simple.” The same Michael Selden (who runs a cellular agriculture fish company) was in a panel on cellular agriculture and spoke positively of GMOs, to my joy. It was a much needed voice in the dark at the conference.
Many people are pro-organic food because they are worried about pesticides, and think that organic food doesn’t have pesticides. This is false – organic food uses organic pesticides, which are not necessarily better and can be worse than synthetic pesticides. For example, copper counts as an organic pesticide. Also, while some pesticides can be harmful, they are probably on average less harmful than you think, and they do provide benefits to food yield etc. Without pesticides, we would need a lot more land and resources to produce the same amount of food. If anything, people should advocate for better and safer use of pesticides than for no use of pesticides.
I also just want to share an exchange I had at the conference which I found quite interesting. I was with a few friends who were all involved with the effective altruism movement, and we were chatting with one woman who had never heard of it before. After explaining the basic concepts, she said, ‘Oh that sounds great, but I’m not earning a lot of money, and I can’t donate much to charity, is there still a place in effective altruism for people like me.
The idea that effective altruism is all about money and donations is an old criticism, but it still comes up from time to time (not that it was necessarily a criticism in this case). But the point is just that taking a high paying job and donating a lot of money to effective charities is just one effective way to do a lot of good that people often overlook, not that it’s the only way. Depending on your situation (interests, skills, network and experience), it might be more or less effective than other things you could do. For example, you could do effective advocacy or research work.
I just found this exchange a good reminder to make sure the message is clear, because I really believe in effective altruism and don’t want people to get the wrong impression of it.
Below are some photos from the conference, including some of my favourite graphs and figures from presentations.
* A valid point was raised to me about saying that ‘it depends’. This could be harmful because it stymies discussion. We can say that it depends and is probably different for different situations, but when it comes down to something like actually putting a message on a leaflet, we need to know what to do.
** Again, a valid point was brought to my attention after writing this. I spoke with the protesters, but most people attending the conference didn’t. Their perception of vegans in general may still have been harmed by the existence/presence of the protest, as they didn’t have the chance to speak with them and hear their arguments or motivation.
Tobias Leenaert is one of the founders of Ethical Vegetarian Alternative, or EVA, which is a Belgian organisation that advocates the consumption of plant foods instead of animals.
Tobias founded the Center for Effective Vegan Advocacy, CEVA, with Melanie Joy, who you might know as the author of Why we Love Dogs, Eat Pigs and Wear Cows. CEVA aims to increase the impact of vegan advocacy worldwide.
I first heard about Tobias through his work on the Vegan Strategist, a blog where he talks about effect animal advocacy. He is also working on a book on vegan strategy and communication, and gives talks around the world.
Tobias and I chatted about the effectiveness and role for different types of animal advocacy.
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If you care about any of the following issues; animal suffering, climate change, environmental degradation, antibiotic resistance or global health, please add your signature (https://openletteranimalfarming.com/).
If the new WHO Director General takes a strong stance on factory farming, that would be a positive for human and non-human animals in so many ways. Congratulations to Scott and Sophie for what I’m sure will be a highly impactful initiative. I’d also just like to take this moment to remind you how easy it can be to influence things, including high profile individuals and organisations (I’ve written about this here). You can and must take action.
I’m on my way to the US east coast for the Reducetarian Summit and picked up the latest issue of New Philosopher, with the theme of the future. I often find New Philosopher a little weak, but this issue is good, especially the interview with Nick Bostrom on the future of humanity. Some of my favourite insights:
Bostrom said that naming their organisation the ‘Future of Humanity Institute’ turned out to be very useful because of how broad it is. It allows them to easily shift their priorities based on what they think is the best thing to work on to improve the world.
Too often I see organisations with some name that locks them in to a particular view, especially non-profits (e.g. the Anti-Nuclear Alliance of Western Australia – I’ve whinged about this before).
I also liked the concept of the ‘world vulnerability thesis’, which Bostrom stressed is not an idea in its final stage. The idea is that, as technology advances, we may reach a point where a small group is able to do something that destroys humanity or the world (or causes catastrophic damage, presumably).
We could, at some point, enter a ‘vulnerability window’ where it is easier to cause major damage than to protect against it, which might either be temporary or lasting. An example of this would be the use of biotechnology to spread an engineered pathogen around the world.
On Friday I had the pleasure of joining some Los Angeles activists in a Cube of Truth at Hollywood, on the walk of fame. I’ve participated in similar outreach events in Sydney, Australia, and was somewhat surprised to note that the responses at each location were quite similar. If you’re not familiar with a Cube of Truth, the video below has some footage from one in Sydney. Essentially, we show people footage of animal farming, and talk to them about it.
I spoke to half a dozen vegetarians (a pretty high proportion of those I spoke to, maybe 30%?) who had no idea about the treatment of animals in the dairy and egg industries. Some people saw the footage and just couldn’t believe that it was happening in their own country.
Of course, we capped off the night with some delicious vegan food at Doomies. Do check it out if you haven’t been yet!
I’m travelling to DC, Philadelphia and New York from 12-22 May, so do hit me up if you’re around. From 20-21 May I’ll be attending the Reducetarian Summit in New York, where I’ll be interviewing my next podcast guest, Tobias Leenaert, also known as the Vegan Strategist. If you’re in New York and are interested in animal advocacy, I recommend you check it out.
In case you haven’t heard about the reducetarian approach, it’s the argument that encouraging people to reduce their meat or animal product consumption might be more effective at reducing animal suffering, at least in the short term, than encouraging people to go vegan.
I’m relatively on the fence about this. I’m a utilitarian so am totally open to altering the message to something not completely vegan if indeed (we believe) it will most reduce suffering over the course of the universe. However, I still have reservations about the reducetarian approach, and am not necessarily convinced that it is the best choice.
Despite that, I still do think that even people who don’t support the reducetarian approach should come to this conference and be a part of the conversation.
Today I expanded on the book review that I wrote on The Reducetarian Solution, a series of essays on eating less animal products edited by Brian Kateman. It’s not an entirely vegan book, which may bother some people, but I think people interested in animal advocacy should know what it says to know whether to promote, support or recommend it.