Why God probably does(n’t) exist

I’m genuinely shocked that The Conversation allowed this article, titled ‘Arguments why God (very probably) does exist’ to be published. This isn’t science-based journalism. I’m still harbouring some hope that it was satire.

Before reading my comments, you should read it yourself, as I speak directly to the points made. In short, the author seeks to outline some arguments from logic for why God probably exists. The author presents an inexplicable misunderstanding of most. The article also seems to be a thinly veiled promotion of the authors’ book:

In my 2015 book, “God? Very Probably: Five Rational Ways to Think about the Question of a God,” I look at physics, the philosophy of human consciousness, evolutionary biology, mathematics, the history of religion and theology to explore whether such a god exists.

Disclaimer – I am a Conversation published author. I feel compelled to write this because this article harms the credibility of the site, and thus all other authors.

On to my comments.


The author pointed out a few people that have doubts over evolution, but failed to acknowledge the reams of evidence in its support. They may as well be denying the existence of climate change.

The second to last point can be easily explained by confirmation bias (you don’t remark on the almost- or non-coincidences, only the ones that actually occur), and the last is not a reason to believe the existence of a god at all. It is possibly a reason to believe that humans have a hunger to be a part of something greater than themselves, whether it’s spiritual or otherwise.

That the universe seems strange and unlikely in many respects can be explained by the anthropic principle. If the universe didn’t quite have the right characteristics for life to exist, we wouldn’t be here to think about it, so it’s not that surprising that we observe the universe to look this way. It’s like saying, ‘wow, I exist, how unlikely’. If you didn’t exist, you wouldn’t be able to ponder that thought. It’s quite staggering that the author didn’t mention this.

Consciousness is weird and hard, but it is not therefore divine.

Evidence-based voting

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.

The Reducetarian Summit – thoughts

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.

Why focus on poultry? From Darius Teter’s talk.
Great panel on ‘The rise of conscious capitalism’, with HRH Prince Khaled bin Alwaleed bin Talal, investor and prince of Saudi Arabia, Molly Breiner of Aloha, Monica Klausner of Veestro, and Adam Chandler of The Atlantic (left to right).
Myself and Tobias Leenaert, after recording our discussion for my podcast.

It was great to see the three milk choices for coffee at the conference were all vegan (as was all the delicious food!), but even more amusing to see everyone excitedly taking this photo, myself included.

 

Morality is Hard podcast – Episode 4 – Tobias Leenaert, the Vegan Strategist

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.

Don’t forget to subscribe to this website or our Facebook page to get reminded of new episodes. We’ll be on iTunes soon too!

An open letter on industrial animal farming

I’m proud to join Scott Weathers, Sophie Hermanns, Mark Bittman and 200+ expert signatories (read: very impressive people) to ask the World Health Organization (WHO) to reduce factory farming.

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/).

Check out Scott, Sophie and Mark’s op-ed in the New York Times here, Scott and Sophie’s note in The Lancet here, and the original letter here.

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.

The future of humanity

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.

Cube of Truth vegan outreach & Reducetarian Summit

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.

Cube of Truth in Hollywood.

Of course, we capped off the night with some delicious vegan food at Doomies. Do check it out if you haven’t been yet!

A vegan leaf and twig burger.
Some of the local animal activists I met on Friday.

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.

I wrote a book review on the Reducetarian Approach (also available in podcast format), in which I also cover some of my reservations.

Podcast episode 3 – The Reducetarian Solution book review (01/05/2017)

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.

The psychology and behaviour of chickens

The Our Hen House podcast recently had a great interview with Lori Marino which I’ve been meaning to summarise. She talks about her recent review paper on the psychology and behaviour of chickens. I found it particularly fascinating because I’ve never really known a lot about the actual characteristics of animals used for food, despite caring a lot about their welfare. As an anecdote, a few years ago I found myself sitting in a field with half a dozen cows, feeling somewhat scared, but found them to be incredibly gentle and curious.

One of the most interesting points to me was that chicken’s beaks are highly innervated. Their beaks are their main way of exploring the world. It’s used to touch and sense their surroundings, to find food, to preen themselves, and to move things. I’ve always known that chickens are debeaked in factory farms to stop them from attacking other chickens in the tight living conditions, so this just drives home how painful that must be. Lori says that many people assume debeaking is like clipping a fingernail, but it’s actually more like taking a finger.

Chickens are able to perform basic arithmetic, even at two days old, which is a function many, myself included, don’t expect chickens to be able to do. For example, you can present a two sets of balls to them with a different amount, which are then put behind a screen. The chickens have to remember how many were behind each screen, presumably to get some reward.

The history of chickens is also interesting. Originally, they are a type of red jungle fowl from India and South East Asia. Subsequent breeding has been primarily focused on getting them to grow faster or produce more eggs, with very little impact on their cognitive capacity. This means that food chickens are not adapted for living in a factory farm. Interestingly, if given access, they will often prefer to climb trees over living in a barn.

Many of the papers reviewed in this paper were, of course, the result of animal testing. To Marino’s credit, she used all of the available research, including that which involved animal testing. She argued that leaving out that research would result in not capturing useful data. She also argues that such an action wouldn’t result in the end of that research taking place. Marino is careful to make the point that reporting on some data doesn’t mean you condone the way in which it was collected.

I want to drill down on this a little. In a sense, it might actually have some non-trivial effect on the production of studies that use animal testing. In academia, there is a saying that goes ‘publish or perish’. Basically, progression and prestige in academia is largely based on the number of citations you get on your papers (when another study references yours), and the prestige of the journals you publish in. This guides promotions, grant funding, awards, and so on.

So in a way, giving such studies citations might actually have some small effect on the likelihood of future animal testing taking place. Having said that, the effect really is probably quite small, and I don’t think it would outweigh the positive effects of this research being available. But I did just want to call into question this claim. I’m curious about this, and will be reaching out to Marino for further comment, and will update this blog post if she responds.

I found this interview fascinating and interesting, and just wanted to share a taste of it and encourage you to check it out, which you can do so here.

The Reducetarian Solution – book review

Edit – you can now also enjoy this review in podcast form with some added discussion.

I initially felt apprehensive about writing a book review for The Reducetarian Solution. There are certain issues where, no matter what you say or what position you take, and sometimes even if you take no position, at least some proportion of the community will be unhappy with you. This feels like it will be no exception. Nevertheless, I will try to be as neutral as possible.

I also feel like I’m trying to write a book review for two very different audiences – the effective altruism/animal advocacy communities who want to know how effective this book is at improving the world and whether they should read and recommend it, and people who are interested in reading it, and possibly in changing their behaviour as a result of some compelling arguments. In that sense, it’s a pretty unusual book review. We’ll see how that goes.

In this case (as is often the case), much of the division is around choice of ethical framework. If you take an abolitionist approach, the notion of promoting anything less than total veganism might be unthinkable. If you take a consequentialist approach, you can potentially come up with arguments in favour of a softer pitch, if it looks like it will reduce suffering more than a hardline message. This might be the case if it is a more palatable message that is easier to achieve. After all, 10 people halving their animal product consumption has more (short term at least) impact as one person becoming vegan.

There are two reasons why I, a consequentialist, remained sceptical about this argument. I was unsure how much more palatable a soft approach really could be, and I was unsure whether there were longer term benefits to having more vegans that we were missing. It might be safe to say that vegans value an end to exploitation of animals, while reducetarians wouldn’t, or at least would value it less, which might have flow-on effects. However, as I’ve said before, more vegans might actually be bad (Disclaimer, I find this somewhat unlikely, but I have to say it because too many people assume stuff is 100% certain. All else being equal, I would rather more vegans in the world than less.).

Anyway, on to the book review.


The Reducetarian Solution is a collection of essays (from a pretty all-star cast of authors) around three themes; mind, body and planet. The book is concluded with a number of recipes, some vegan, some vegetarian, some neither.

Because the book is written by so many different people, I have tried to separate my review out into two parts – one addressing specific essays (which can be found at the end of this post), and addressing the themes of the book as a whole. There being 72 essays, I haven’t commented on all of them. I’ve just made some notes on essays which I thought were interesting or where I had something to say. I make a few critiques, though I hope these are taken for what they are – me pointing out some individual claims I disagree with, not an attack on the essay in question or the book as a whole.

The essays primarily (though not always) use arguments other than animal welfare or animal rights to make the case for eating fewer animal products. In particular, they focus on benefits to you as an individual, and benefits to the environment and humanity overall.

In general, the essays seem to make veganism sound like a fairly hard thing to achieve, whether indirectly by advocating for a small or major reduction in meat (mostly) or animal product consumption generally, or directly by saying that veganism is quite hard, and so you should try reducetarianism if you want to have a positive impact. In my experience, there were some difficulties with becoming vegan, but I wouldn’t want to overplay that. I have a modest level of willpower, but I don’t think it’s amazing. However, I was able to commit to being vegan once I knew the relevant facts with relatively few issues. I still have reservations on a line of messaging that seems to make full veganism seem hard, which I’ll discuss more below.

In addition, as I have discussed before, I also have reservations about focussing on just meat. The environmental and health arguments for eating fewer animal products might be effective for those cases, but it would be naïve to assume that there is a 100% overlap between achieving less animal suffering and achieving better human health and better environmental outcomes. Take health, for example. If one were convinced by the health arguments for not eating meat, they might note that red and processed meats are the worst offenders.

Thus, they might cut out these meats, and eat chicken or fish instead. However, we know that chickens and fish produce much less edible flesh per life than cows and pigs do. Therefore, if one cuts out red meat and even just slightly increases their consumption of chicken and/or fish to account for that, they might be increasing their total effect on suffering.

The same applies for environmental factors – out of typical food animals, cows are the worst offenders for land use and greenhouse gas emissions. If one were focussing on their environmental footprint, they might do the same thing. If one were interested in reducing their impact on animal suffering in a reducetarian context, the best thing they could do would be the opposite – eat fewer chickens and fish, and the same or more cows and pigs. These goals are in conflict with each other, and because The Reducetarian Solution focuses mostly on the health and environmental aspects, I worry that the suffering aspect could get left behind. See this post of mine for a much more detailed discussion of this issue.

I also wonder if events like Meatless Monday have any effect, positive or negative, on egg consumption. After a pretty brief web search, I couldn’t find anything on this. Because egg consumption results in a pretty high amount of suffering compared to milk, if reducetarian messages increased egg consumption, that would also be bad, maybe even net bad relative to doing nothing. This is just a concern, and is not backed by any data whatsoever, so take it with a fist full of salt. I do think it’s plausible that with a careful approach, concerns about increasing chicken, fish and egg consumption could be allayed, but I’m not entirely sure what this would look like.

The target audience is undoubtedly non-veg*ns (certainly not a surprise, and not a bad thing). There are some interesting insights, so it is still worth picking up for a dedicated, long-term vegan, but less so than someone interested in reducing their consumption, unless they wanted to get better at advocating for reducetarianism. But that’s fine – the book is designed with the target audience of omnivores in mind. The goal, if I might speculate, is to reduce the consumption of animal products in omnivores.

Overall, the book was an enjoyable read, and I finished it over about 5 days. I can’t speak personally to how compelling the arguments were, since I’m already sold by most of them. I’m considering asking my parents to read it, and can report back on their take, and whether it inspired any change in their attitudes and actions.

I feel like I’m on the fence relative to most other animal advocates. I’m a consequentialist, so will advocate for whatever approach I think is most effective at reducing suffering. But I do worry that a lot of consequentialists are not considering the possible negative effects of focusing on animal welfare reform (possibly increasing consumption by making animals seem better treated) or a ‘reduce’ message (possibly reducing the rise of veganism or having other negative long term effects).

The Reducetarian Foundation commissioned a study to examine the effect of ‘reduce’ (eat less meat) and ‘eliminate’ (eat no meat) messages, which was released in 2016. Full data was collected from 2,237 participants, who were shown an article with either a reduce appeal, an eliminate appeal, or an unrelated article about walking as a form of exercise (which acted as the control group – the articles used can be found in the appendix here). They found that the reduce and eliminate lines of messaging lead to a 7.1% and 5.8% reduction respectively in self-reported meat consumption over the 30 days following. Both also led to a shift in participant’s opinions on factory farming and meat eating in the US. Interestingly, the report was careful to say that they found “no evidence that a reduce is any more effective than an eliminate appeal”.

Compared to the control group, after 30 days the reduce and eliminate groups were more likely to think that animal agriculture contributes to suffering and environmental degradation, that people are healthier with less meat, and that Americans are reducing their meat consumption, and less likely to think that animals have a good standard of living. In these categories, the difference between the reduce and eliminate groups seems small and mixed. There seemed to be very little effect of the articles on perceptions of people towards vegetarians, intention to change meat consumption in the future, and perception of animal intelligence.

I’m not intending to fully break down the methodology and statistical significance of the study here. I do think it’s fair to say that, while the reduce message seemed slightly more effective at reducing meat consumption, there is no evidence that either framing was more effective than the other at changing attitudes around meat. The study acknowledges they do not know whether the effects on diet of either message are more likely than the other to persist for a longer period of time. There also does not seem to be any examination of whether there are other long term effects of each message that might have negative outcomes relative to doing nothing, e.g. if it is the case that widespread promotion of a reduce message makes people less likely to be vegan in the long run.

While I still have reservations about the long term effects of a reduce message over an eliminate message, I can’t definitely say that they are negative, and I do believe that it is a positive thing this book exists. From the limited evidence we have at our disposal, it seems apparent that something like this will reduce animal product consumption, at least in the short term. Significantly more non-vegans (the audience we’d want to reach with outreach) would pick up this book than a book advocating for veganism, and if the lines of messaging really are similar in effectiveness, we could argue that this therefore has an even greater short term effect on diet.

If you’re considering eating less animal products or are unsure whether you’d want to, I would recommend this book. If you have thought about being vegetarian or vegan, or think that you might like to, I’d encourage you to keep that in mind as you read, and to keep that as your end goal.

With respect veganism being a long term goal, I do just want to say this. Gary Francione argues that if you want to become a vegan but don’t feel able to immediately, the best way to get there is to go vegan for one meal a day, or one day a week. Most people would tend to just eat fewer animal products. Unlike this approach, setting aside time to specifically be vegan actually allows you to practice being vegan. For example, if you pick lunch as your vegan meal, you need to think about vegan options at restaurants, you need to think about what you can and can’t eat at catered events, and you need to know what to cook. This isn’t the sort of practice you’d get by just reducing your consumption. I don’t agree with most things Francione says, but this is something that I think is a valid point (#I have no data to back this up).

Please now enjoy some notes I made on some of the essays. There was some pretty interesting stuff and I think you’ll get something out of it no matter where you’re at.


The bizarre forces that drive people to eat too much meat – David Robinson Simon

The first essay nicely summarises the concept of external cost, and argues that animal product prices should be brought up to their true cost by removing subsidies and/or adding a tax. Interestingly, price is one of the biggest drivers for meat consumption. On average, as prices drop by 10%, consumption rises by around 6.5%.

The element of surprise – Tania Luna

Luna discusses some ways for people to disrupt their eating habits if they are interested in eating less animal products. The essay also discusses willpower depletion, however this particular psychological theory seems to have been debunked. The science of willpower depletion suggests that one’s willpower is a limited resource, and you can use it up by doing certain actions (e.g. resisting that delicious Oreo), or replenish it by doing others (e.g. demolishing that packet of Oreos – maybe this is why I seem to have reasonable willpower).

“They told some of the students to hang out for a while unattended, eating only from the bowl of radishes, while another group ate only cookies. Afterward, each volunteer tried to solve a puzzle, one that was designed to be impossible to complete.”

“They found that the ones who’d eaten chocolate chip cookies kept working on the puzzle for 19 minutes, on average—about as long as people in a control condition who hadn’t snacked at all. The group of kids who noshed on radishes flubbed the puzzle test. They lasted just eight minutes before they quit in frustration.”

While it may still be early days for detractors of this theory, I would caution against using it in decision making.

Cannibalism is natural too – Richard Wrangham

Wrangham takes aim at the notion that eating meat is ok because it’s natural and humans (and other animals) have done it for a long time, which is a common rebuttal I come up against in my own advocacy. He points out that cannibalism and other unspeakable acts are also natural for humans and other animals, but that doesn’t make it an ethically reasonable thing to do.

Tricked! – Seth Godin

Godin argues that consumers are being tricked in a number of ways to buying more meat. Part of this is the dietary food pyramid, which was a deliberate marketing effort to “put meat at the base of the healthy diet”. It’s marketed as a food for the rich, which makes me wonder if this is related to the rise of meat consumption in developing nations as they come out of poverty. If meat is a symbol of wealth, people might want to show it off. This is my favourite passage from the essay:

“The thing about cultural preference is that it is invisible… We don’t say that we don’t like to eat crickets because we didn’t grow up with them, we say it’s because they’re “gross”… some people reading this will say they order meat because it tastes better or because the human metabolism is designed to eat it… No, it’s culture that drives us to do this, and culture that drives our preferences.”

The original food pyramid from the United States Department of Agriculture. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:USDA_Food_Pyramid.gif

Less meat; more dough – Paul Shapiro

Shapiro discusses the ways in which eating less meat can save you money. A common argument against veganism is that it costs a lot of money, or that it’s a privileged thing to be able to do. This is simply not the case. It might be true if you buy a lot of expensive plant-based meat and dairy alternatives, but if you have a standard diet of fruit, vegetables, grains and beans, you’ll save yourself money.

Sure, I’ve personally been to non-vegan restaurants where the vegan options are expensive, small, and leave a lot to be desired. But in general, rice and beans is cheaper than a steak.

A nudge in the right direction – Per Espen Stoknes, Bradley Swain

Stoknes and Swain discuss the power of psychological ‘nudges’ in behavioural change. This can be incredibly powerful and simple, and is widely credited as the reason that Austria and Sweden have around 98% of their eligible population being organ donors. Unlike other countries, when given the choice, Austrians and Swedes must ‘opt-out’ of being an organ donor, instead of having to ‘opt-in’. Because people are biased towards the status quo (making no change), they typically won’t check the box.

These sorts of techniques are the kinds of things you hope animal advocates get really good at, and the animal agriculture industry doesn’t. Unfortunately, mainstream media is already very good at making you do what they want you to, so we have some catching up to do.

“…a restaurant in Oslo that looked at the effect of simply renaming the “vegetarian options.” The restaurant rebranded vegetable-based menu items with fancier names like “Mexican-style taco” and made vegetarian options the special dish of the day. As a result of these tweaks, customers at the restaurant ended up eating meat less frequently. The change was seen particularly among customers who did not have a strong connection to nature.”

This quote is interesting. Skeptical me wonders if calling things something other than “vegan” or “vegetarian” might result in a weaker long term effect. For example, seeing these options available or ordering one and seeing that it’s delicious might cause an omnivore to react positively towards veg*nism. If they order a “Mexican-style taco”, that it had no meat might not cross their mind. It seems like a possible trade-off between short and long term effects. I’d love to see a longer term study on this and how the two labels affect future animal product consumption.

Why we crave meat in the first place – Marta Zaraska

Zaraska says “We should stop flogging vegetarians who sometimes secretly eat meat. After all, compared to the Western average, they likely did manage to change their diets substantially. If you are an ethical vegetarian, think about it: What would save more lives – if one person stopped eating meat altogether, or if millions cut out just on meat-based meal a month?”

I feel like this slightly misses the point that abolitionists make. Abolitionists seem to accept that this would result in less immediate animal suffering. However, they generally don’t value wellbeing, but instead value bringing about a world with less exploitation. Also, an abolitionist would argue that the act of advocating for anything less than complete veganism would have negative implications, as it would make it seem ethically fine to reduce instead of eliminate, and this might make it harder to end animal exploitation in the long run. Some abolitionists would simply reject this approach because they see it as intrinsically unethical to advocate for anything less than full veganism regardless of the consequences, which of course I find difficult to swallow.

From MRES to McRibs: Military influence on American meat eating – Anastacia Marx de Salcedo

Marx de Salcedo provided an interesting historical account of the influences the US military has had on food production. For example, during WWI, in an effort to improving packing processes for rations and to reduce costs, army food scientists developed a technology to flake unfavourable parts of meat and ‘glue’ them together into a more traditional looking cut. This technique is still popular today in a lot of fast food joints.

Effective reducetarianism – William MacAskill

MacAskill discusses how you can maximise your impact on reducing suffering within a reducetarian context. For example, as I discussed early, cutting chickens out of your diet would have a greater impact on reducing animal suffering than cutting out cows. As I also discussed earlier, focussing on optimising for environmental and health aspects, if you don’t intend to fully go vegan or vegetarian, might actually increase suffering. While The Reducetarian Solution did have some messaging around reducing chicken and fish consumption preferentially, I wish it had more.

The power of film to expose the meat industry and change lives – Mark Devries

Devries discusses exactly what his title suggests he will. I thought this was a neat overview, and I learnt a few things. One in particular totally blew me away. I never realised that an actual practice of factory farms in the US is to spray sewage into the air, where it becomes a mist and settles on to nearby houses. Check out the footage.

The antibiotic resistance at the meat counter – Lance B. Price

This essay is a good introduction to the issue of global antibiotic resistance, and the role the animal agriculture industry plays in it. To put a complicated and serious issue very simply, as more antibiotics are used, the prevalence of antibiotic resistant superbugs increases. If usage continues to increase, we could have some serious global health issues on our hands.

When people think about reducing global use of antibiotics, they often think of human use. But in the US, 32.6 million pounds of antibiotics were sold for use in animal agriculture in 2013, compared to just 7.7 million pounds for human use in 2011.

When a global catastrophe strikes – David Denkenberger

Denkenberger makes several arguments about global catastrophic risk in such rapid succession and so candidly that it took me three reads to convince myself I understood what he meant. But – he makes some good points. Denkenberger suggests that a possible reason some people might have for not reducing meat consumption, is that it would reduce the amount of grain stored in the world (since less is needed for animal feedstock), which might harm our ability to survive in a food crisis (say after a global thermonuclear war, which some experts believe is quite plausible in the next 100 years – or if not that, some other catastrophic event).

However don’t fear, he says. Food storage as a solution would be extremely expensive compared to alternative food technology, such as food developed from ‘natural gas loving bacteria’. Developing these technologies would be much cheaper. So while reducing global meat consumption might slightly increase food storage issues in the event of a global catastrophe, we can get around that by investing a small amount of money in food technology experimentation.

If you haven’t read much existential or catastrophic risk literature, this might have just made no sense (or it might just sound totally crazy). If that’s the case, as someone who cares about life and the world, I suggest you look into it.

Through alien eyes – Nigel Henbest & Heather Couper

Henbest and Couper ask us to imagine humanity discovers a new planet with two lifeforms on it, which we call the Gips and the Namuhs. The Gips are peaceful, but the Namuhs are cruel, and kill each other as well as the Gips. They imprison the Gips, and eat them after executing them.

The Gips are pigs, and the Namuhs are humans.

The authors also discuss the phenomenon of humans wanting to send messages with information about humanity to other stars. If this sounds farfetched, consider that Frank Drake, American astronomer, used the world’s largest radio telescope to send a message into space which “described human biology and anatomy and included a map showing how to locate planet Earth”. This, they argue, is a pretty bad idea.

They’re not alone in thinking this. Associate Professor Geoffrey Miller, University of New Mexico, gave a talk at the University of New South Wales in 2016, which I attended. He argued that sending a message to aliens with information about us is something with very low upside, and potentially catastrophic downside. It might sound cool and fun to do, but the benefits simply don’t outweigh the risks.

Insects. They’re what’s for dinner. – Daniella Martin

Martin talks about the merits of eating insects. While this might produce some environmental benefits, there is increasing evidence that insects have some capacity for sentience. Even if you weight one insect less than one chicken, as I do, it takes many insects to produce the same amount of nutrients as one chicken. Thus, promoting the idea of eating insects for food is, in my opinion, quite bad, possibly even net harmful compared to doing nothing.