“Chloe Coscarelli Fired for Defending Veganism” – more to the story?

This post regards the breaking news that Chloe Coscarelli, founder of the popular By Chloe franchise, a popular vegan food outlet in USA, has been fired for defending veganism. Specifically, they wanted to expand with non-vegan options, and Chloe was overruled. Many vegans are outraged that the company would do this, and are vowing to boycott By Chloe (in particular, by leaving a 1 star review on their Facebook page).

As usual, I am here to argue that this is probably not as simple as it seems. The world is more complicated than you want it to be!

Surprise, there’s another side to the story. In the past 24 hours it has been revealed that Chloe was actually fired because an arbitrator ruled she was grossly negligent. It also seems possible that the claims about plans to start serving meat were unfounded.

But Wasser says the claim is “outrageous,” and they never planned to stray from being vegan. She also alleges that Coscarelli has been less involved with the business and has undercut its success for some time.

Meanwhile, Wasser just wants people to know that she is committed to keeping By Chloe the same vegan restaurant that it’s always been. Since news broke about the split, people in the vegan community have allegedly been sending Wasser and ESquared death threats — many under the belief that ESquared pushed Coscarelli out so that they could start serving meat products. She doesn’t blame them for supporting Coscarelli but wants them to know her side, too.

This is fucking scary. I don’t think I’ve sworn on my blog before, so I hope that emphasises how scary I think this is (not as scary as existential risk, but still pretty scary). This is what happens when people jump on a media story before knowing all of the facts. You literally send a death threat to someone who has done nothing wrong, and support someone who was maybe justifiably fired for being grossly negligent.

I don’t blame people for getting upset about this before the second announcement. It’s hard to project forward and foresee such an occurrence. But just think, if it can happen with this story, it can happen with any story. I guess the take away here is to not rush in to action. This can be frustrating when the media cycle generally demands you act fast to get your message out, but it is super important to get your facts straight.

I wonder if boycotting the franchise would have even been a good thing if the first story were true. How much of the new version of the franchise would have been non-vegan? If not much, maybe the positive effects of a mostly vegan company outweigh any negative effects, and we shouldn’t boycott it.

It will be interesting to see if she will start a new franchise. She’ll basically be going in to business against herself, as she is still (presumably) a part owner of the initial business, she just no longer works there. I’ve heard of this happening a lot in the startup world when a founder is disgruntled and removed, then goes into competition against themselves. This most likely isn’t in their best interests, and seems to be driven by emotion.

Perhaps the original story is true and the second is a cover up, or there is still another layer to this, but one thing is for sure – the world isn’t as simple as you want it to be.

Addicted to outrage: For the love of the bandwagon

In our society, we are addicted to outrage and jumping on the latest bandwagon. This is a bad way to go about things, and maybe even dangerous. I want to share a particularly great example that occurred through a conversation I had recently on Facebook with some random people on a post made by Adam Bandt, Australian Federal Government Greens member for Melbourne. He was talking about a proposed coal mine in Queensland, Australia, which the Australian resources minister Matt Canavan had said would be a net positive for the environment. Queue outrage.

Bandter with Adam Bandt’s supporters

I decided to simply screenshot the conversation without removing names as it was and is entirely public on Facebook anyway.

What happened here exactly? If you made it through all of the comments, I’m impressed. I read the linked article and another about the issue, and resources minister was making some plausible arguments for how this mine could be a net positive for the environment. Sure, it might have been better to have renewable energy or gas instead, but if what we’re comparing is a world without this mine and a world with this mine, Mr Canavan’s argument might hold. Here is how:

“…using high-quality coal to displace lower-quality coal”

I know nothing about this mine, but if it were true that the coal was higher quality (releasing less emissions per unit energy produced) than the average existing coal, and the production of this coal meant lower quality coal was not produced, the claim might be true. There are several other minor arguments, such as:

““They will do things that will improve the environment here in central Queensland and they’ll protect an additional 31,000 hectares for the black-throated finch,” Canavan said.”


““They will limit the drawdown on the springs in the area and also return water to the Great Artesian basin – around 730 megalitres a year.”

So basically Adam Bandt and his followers seem to be arguing that these claims are baseless. Fair enough, maybe they are. So I asked Adam Bandt if he did indeed have evidence that these claims were baseless.

“This seems plausible, does it not? Adam Bandt are you saying that you have evidence that this statement is false?”

No response from Adam, but his supporters were pretty upset. E.g.

“Have you got shares in the coal industry or are just stupid as Canavan” [sic]

“Michael you really are naive if you think what they said will actually happen. Look at history of Adani and their broken promises…get the facts from many sources before you slavishly believe one source.”

This one was particularly amusing because I’m actually questioning the source (Adam Bandt) unlike them. There was also one nice chap who asked me whether my (PhD) supervisor knew what I was saying here, but he has since deleted his comment.

It’s becoming increasingly apparent that we are addicted to being outraged at certain things without much evidence about the specifics. This seems like a pretty bad heuristic. If you have read any of my work relating to effective altruism, you would know that even strange ideas can lead to great outcomes, and great ideas can lead to negative effects. I wouldn’t fall off my chair if something that sounded environmentally damaging on the outset turned out to increase wellbeing.

Best of all, I never said I supported the project, I was just not jumping on the bandwagon. This was taken to be a full, unwavering support of the project. As I said in the post:

“These things are always more complicated than people want them to be. For the record, I think the project shouldn’t go ahead. It is amusing to me that people here have assumed that I am in favour of the project, as I never said anything of the sort.

What kind of sad world we live in where merely thinking through the consequences of actions instead of jumping on the bandwagon is seen as a bad thing.”

Along a slightly different theme, but no less ‘bandwagony’, is this example. This was posted in a closed group called Friendly Vegans in Melbourne, so you might not be able to see it. As a result, I have hidden the identities of the original poster and commenters.

Some friendly vegans


I really don’t have much to add here. But once again, refusing to jump on the bandwagon makes people think less of you. Go figure.

I will just say that this should in no way cause you to be against veganism, simply because some friendly vegans celebrate human suffering in specific circumstances.

Thank you sir, your visa has been approved

Yesterday, I got my US visa for a one year visiting researcher position at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and what a process it was! I’ve organised my own visa before for a trip to Nepal, but the US consulate was so exceedingly different from the Nepali consulate that I felt like I had to write about it.

Nepali consulate

Small, one story building, no security guards, two visible staff. Walk in, hand over documentation, get asked a few questions, get visa, walk out.

US consulate (some details omitted for security purposes)

Walk in, get told you can’t take photos, get told to turn my phone off, get asked to wait in the pre-line, get moved to the main line 5 minutes after my appointment time, get documents checked, go through security clearance, go up to another floor, go through another security check, talk to someone at a booth through a glass window, talk to someone else, get directed to another window to pay, get directed back to the second guy, get visa, walk back to elevator, go back down 50 odd floors, go back through security, exit, fist pump.

Basically, this feels like a taste of USA as much as the laid-back Nepali consulate felt like a taste of Nepal. I’ve heard a few horror stories of both US and non-US citizens trying to enter the country, especially post-Trump administration, but part of me suspects that I’m much less likely to run into any issues than it seems.

Has anyone got any recent US travel tales they’d like to share?

How to influence stuff

I’m becoming increasingly convinced that it’s actually pretty easy to influence stuff. It seems like people don’t try because they assume it will be too hard to change anything, and this is self-reinforcing. I’m talking about things like emailing your local politicians, getting articles and opinion pieces published, and getting a company or website to change their public position. From the age of about 20, I kind of just made a decision to be gutsy, and so far it has paid off.

I want to share some of my successes and tips, and encourage you to try being more engaged and active in issues that matter. I’ll also cover my failures and try to analyse what could have gone better, but I must say the failure rate is far, far lower than people assume it is.

This ended up being a very long article, so I’m going to publish my failures and learnings separately. Make sure to subscribe to get notified when that comes out.

What has worked


My first realisation of how little people try to do stuff they think is hard came in 2013 when I was about to start the final year of my undergraduate degree. I was unsure about applying for scholarships because my results had been lackluster until my penultimate year when I started caring. However, two of my professors encouraged me to try anyway, and one of them mentioned that not many people actually apply. I ended up receiving 4 scholarships with a total value of just under $10,000 AUD, including the prestigious Playford Memorial Trust scholarship, which comes with political networking opportunities (more on this below), and a $2,000 scholarship to which I was the only applicant despite advertising attempts by the organisation.

The takeaway here – if a scholarship looks hard to get, that deters people, and may actually increase your chances. And – you’re may well be more capable than you think you are.

Political lobbying

This next one was a smaller financial reward, but really broke down a lot of mental barriers to trying other stuff in the future. In 2014, I signed up for and was accepted to Al Gore’s Climate Reality Project training in Melbourne, a three day course where we learned about climate science, policy and communication skills.

As I mentioned, the Playford Memorial Trust offers networking opportunities with politicians, and I spoke with the opposition leader of South Australia for a few minutes. Amusingly, he approached me because he was impressed by my bio. As an aside, he was in the audience falling asleep when they read it out, and I got the pleasure of seeing him get startled to wakefulness.

I later emailed his office to ask whether they would be interested in sponsoring and funding my trip to the training in Melbourne, citing the reasoning that I would be able to better communicate the risks of climate change to his constituents. His office declined, and I asked whether he would make an introduction to my local state representative to try again. He did, and my local MP’s office got in touch to say they would pay for $100 of the trip as long as I said that they sponsored me.

Let’s take a close look at what happened here. This was clearly a valuable spend of money for them. They spend a paltry $100 and get to demonstrate that they care about climate change. It was very much a mutually beneficial situation. This is the second takeaway I’d like to leave you with. So you want to change something or get something. Half the battle is pitching it in a way that makes it desirable to them as well. Of course, I was very happy to get to say that I was sponsored by my state government to attend climate advocacy training with Al Gore.

You might say that I had some help here thanks to an introduction, and you might be right, but I don’t think it’s that unlikely that I wouldn’t have been able to land this anyway.

Contacting famous people

I often hear people complain about the stance of some famous (or otherwise) individual, but never do anything about it except type angry Facebook posts. I hear the opposite too – where someone is in awe of some individual, but never contacts them. I’ve had a lot of success with cold emails (your unintroduced email to them is the first contact between you), and want to share a few.

In early 2015 I emailed Peter Singer (I got his email from his website), one of the co-founders of the effective altruism movement, after seeing his hugely successful TED Talk on the movement. The talk really resonated with me, and I desperately wanted to know how to get involved. Amazingly, he responded within 30 minutes, and suggested that I start a chapter in Adelaide, then put me on to some people to help. As an aside, his email actually went to my spam. I never checked my spam email, but did this time, and was stunned to see his email there. Now I always check my spam. The lesson, always check your spam.

I once saw a talk by famous British geologist Iain Stewart at a geology conference in Australia. He was well-known for science communication and had been in a number of documentaries. I later emailed him for advice on getting better at science communication, and was pleasantly surprised to hear back from him.

Gary Yourofsky is an well-known animal activist who has given hundreds if not thousands of talks around the world about animal exploitation. I emailed him with some questions about how to have an impact in the space, and he replied with a long, detailed email. To be fair, he said he spends around 6 hours a day replying to cold emails, but I think this just highlights the point that famous people do respond to stuff.

There are many more examples, but I’m sure you get the point by now. I once toyed with the idea of emailing Bill Gates but didn’t, but in all honesty I think the chances of getting a personal response are higher than we all think. In terms of what to say in an email, it depends on what you want to achieve. If you just want to ask advice, just be honest and polite, and giving some context doesn’t seem to hurt (e.g. I saw your speech and it resonated with me. Would you mind if I asked you some questions? The questions are…). If you want to influence them on something, you might want to start with a more innocuous question to build rapport, and increase the likelihood of them responding. I’ve covered this a little more below.


At the end of 2015, I had a very interesting radio experience. I had already been on radio a few times by this point to talk about solar thermal energy through a committee role I had, but the interviewers were all on board and receptive, since they ran a climate related radio spot. As I found out, there is a very big difference between receptive and hostile on the radio.

It started when I saw Neil Mitchell (an Australian radio host) and two other individuals talking on Channel 9 News about the World Health Organisation announcement that processed meat is carcinogenic, and red meat is likely carcinogenic. They laughed and downplayed the announcement using a number of shoddy arguments, claiming that all things are safe in moderation. My main issue with this was that they were on a segment labelled as ‘news’, and were presenting opinion as fact without being kept in check by the news host.

I decided to take a rather aggressive approach, which turned out to work… sort of. I started a petition on change.org to hold Channel 9 News and Neil Mitchell accountable for their irresponsible health remarks. In fact, I called for them to be sacked. You can see the full petition here including my rationale, but here are some key points from the program that I took issue with, and my responses.

““I really don’t think that bacon is the prime suspect.” It is irresponsible to state an opinion as if it is fact. Processed meats such as bacon are indeed one of the leading causes of cancer and heart disease.

“We’re always being told… don’t eat this…” – “Don’t listen.” This medical advice being provided from a news anchor is simply dangerous. Being told to not listen to health advice is in no way acceptable.

I shared the petition on Facebook, including various Australian vegan Facebook pages. I then followed up with an email to share the petition to key staff at both Channel 9 and 3AW radio where Neil works. Despite only ending up with 147 signatures, the producer of Neil’s program called me the next day to ask if I wanted to speak to Neil that day live on air. I said yes, but if I knew then what I do now about how hostile radio works, I probably wouldn’t have. As I said before, it’s very different to an interview where they are already on board. The first take away lesson here is to judge for yourself whether the interviewer will be at least neutral to your message. If not, it’s probably not worth your time unless you are a pro and have carefully considered the risks.

You can hear the full interview here. I wasn’t as assertive as I should have been, and should have stuck my to my key talking points. Several times he strayed from the topic and it distracted me. He played the audio of part of the news session in question, and I later realised that they had edited it to make Neil sound more reasonable. I should have noticed this at the time and called him out on it, but I was stressed and in the moment. I got some flak from a bunch of random people on social media. But at the end of the day, it was a valuable lesson, and I now know a solid way to get people’s attention.

Since then, I have been on a number of radio interviews about both my PhD research, and my work with Effective Altruism Australia while I was CEO. These opportunities actually mostly fell on my lap (more on the PhD interviews below), so I don’t have too much to say except to put yourself out there, because you never know. With the media, you will often get either no attention, or a lot of attention.

The popular discussion panel Q&A recently launched a radio segment that follows their main TV slot where people can call in to ask questions and talk about what was discussed during the program. After a discussion on climate change that lacked any mention of animal agriculture, I called in to raise this, and was chuffed to get 60 seconds of air time. Unfortunately, the host was pretty dismissive, but it was a good opportunity to share the message to a large number of people.

Pitching articles

I’ve also discovered that it’s surprisingly easy to get an article published somewhere, so long as you’re strategic about it. My PhD research is mostly on developing new techniques to understand the physical properties of asteroids, but I also dabble in asteroid impact risk mitigation, asteroid mining and space ethics. Being concerned about existential risk (the risk of some event that might wipe out either humanity or all life), I pitched an article to The Conversation.

The Conversation publish short articles written by researchers in the relevant field on key issues of the day. Their motto is ‘academic rigour, journalistic flair’. They partner researchers with an editor to make an accurate but enjoyable article. I had previously pitched an article on public health, but was rejected because it wasn’t in my area of expertise. I later pitched an article on my PhD research and got an interested editor. He was more interested in the possibility of an asteroid impact and what we can do about it than anything directly related to my work, but I took the opportunity.

Overall, this was a wildly successful use of my time. The article has now been published in two languages and viewed by almost 100,000 people. I was contacted on the day it was published by ABC to do a 3 minute TV interview on the same day, and was contacted for several radio interviews on the same topic. Sometimes opportunities have great flow on value.

I later pitched an updated version of my public health article to the Australian Vegans Journal, where it was accepted (in a forthcoming issue). This is a pretty simple example of why target selection is important. You need to think about what audience would be receptive to the story, but also what outlet would be receptive to publishing. Unfortunately, this doesn’t always align with the audience you’re trying to reach, especially if you want to talk about something like factory farming, but you can take easy opportunities to build up your profile and have a better chance later.

I also pitched an article about effective altruism to Plant Based News on how it can and should be merged with animal advocacy. This was a pretty easy sell; because of course animal advocates want to be effective. Unfortunately I have had push back elsewhere with this pitch, because not everyone in the animal advocacy community agrees with the message, but it never hurts to try.

Getting a website or organisation to change something

I have two standout examples of where I contacted someone to change something, and they did. The first and best involved an online article by the Daily Mail titled ‘If you want grandchildren, make sure you eat protein, study finds’. They’re pretty notorious for low quality reporting, and I usually ignore their articles, but this one caught my eye.

This article originally claimed that a study showed low protein diet in humans lead to low fertility. I read the study they cited, and it actually had no data on humans, it was about bovines and fruit flies. So essentially the article had drawn their own conclusions that weren’t backed up by data. I put in a complaint, and impressively, they amended the article. The complaint and response from the Daily Mail are below.

As a scientist, I’ve first hand experienced poor media reporting of science. The article says that the study reports low levels of protein can negatively affect offspring’s fertility. The news article then says that low meat intake can result in the same, presumably because they assume meat has a lot of protein, even though a plant based diet has already been shown to be more efficient for protein intake. So the author of this article likely made their own assumptions. However, it is impossible to tell because the article didn’t link to the original study, so I can’t fact check it. Overall, this seems like a very poor example of science reporting. I think it is more than appropriate that the article is revisited. If the article is indeed misleading, it should be corrected. I will be following this up with a formal complaint, including to other news outlets, in several weeks if it is not addressed.

Dear Mr Dello-Iacovo,

Thank you for your email, which has been passed on to me for a response. We are sorry for the delay in responding to you and please be assured that we meant no discourtesy.

We are extremely grateful for you to take the time and trouble to address these points and as you may be aware we have amended the copy to reflect these.

If there is anything further we can do to assist you then please do let us know.

I can’t find the study now, but a very high percentage of media reporting (I think over 50%) has at least one minor scientific inaccuracy, and some large percent has at least one major scientific inaccuracy. If you see something that looks erroneous, look into it and try to get it changed! This is also a reminder to not take the news, especially articles, for granted. I have already experienced poor media reporting of my own scientific work first hand, albeit minor (The Conversation allows articles to be republished with credit, so one outlet republished my article on asteroids, but gave it a title that had nothing to do with what I was saying, and made it sound like I claimed something that I didn’t). Make sure to read the original study, especially if you plan on acting based on an article.

The second example was more minor, but involved the Skepticon Australia 2017 conference, run by Australian Skeptics Inc. In case you’re not familiar with the skeptics movement, it essentially involves using a healthy dose of scepticism and rational thinking in your everyday life, being wary of pseudoscientific claims like astrology and homeopathy. Their website included ‘carcinogenic meats’ as a pseudoscientific claim. As I’ve already discussed above, this goes against the WHO announcement. I promptly emailed them to say that their claim was incorrect, and included links to the relevant WHO material. They corrected the website.


My last example of success was my winning of the 2016 Sentience Politics Essay Prize (essay is available here). I had just discovered the field of wild-animal suffering research, and was pretty concerned, so I wanted to write about it and provide my own ideas. I was pretty unsure whether I could win, given that I’m not a philosopher and I sometimes question the quality of my ideas. But whether it’s because not many people entered, or because I am actually a visionary (I think the former is the stronger effect here), I won the $2,000 prize. Competitions probably suffer in a similar way to scholarships, in that people assume they aren’t worthy, so don’t try. You may be more capable or creative than you think.


I don’t see my success in this space ending any time soon, and I only expect to get better as I learn more, so I’ll be looking to update this post with new information from time to time, or to write a new post. I hope I’ve inspired you to try to influence stuff, because it’s honestly easier than you probably think (just please influence stuff in a positive direction!). Please share any future or past successes and tips in the comments to help me and other readers.

The side of the Auckland Airport dog shooting the media refuses to cover

Anger at the small, apathy at the vast

Last night, police shot a dog as it ran uncontrolled across the tarmac of Auckland Airport in New Zealand. The police claimed that it was necessary to shoot the dog, though many are rightly outraged and question why tranquilisers couldn’t be used, or why a more humane solution could not be found. Most people say that we shouldn’t kill or harm for no reason, or for enjoyment, and I agree.

However, it is ironic that most people who are outraged by this tragic event probably went on to eat animal products later that day. 70 billion land animals are killed for their flesh or excretions each year. It’s a mass killing of unimaginable scale, and it’s not necessary. There is no evidence that animal products are necessary in a healthy diet, and there is even some evidence that it is more healthful to avoid it. Animal agriculture is also one of the largest causes of climate change, accounting for some 15% of global greenhouse gas emissions. And finally, it is the cause of vast suffering.

People love dogs, and in a western country like New Zealand or Australia, we think it’s wrong to shoot or eat one. But pigs are cleverer than dogs, and are as intelligent as a 3 year old human child. It makes no sense to love dogs but pay for an industry to harm pigs just to eat their flesh. How can we be against harming animals for fun, yet continue to pay for animals to be harmed so we can eat them for fun?

Part of the problem is that people just don’t realise how bad life is for an animal in a factory farm. Chickens are crammed in to either cages or sheds with little room to move. So-called ‘free range’ or ‘cage free’ operations are little better, and one only needs to watch the prize-winning documentary Lucent to see what Australian pigs endure.

If you think killing animals for pleasure is wrong, there is an easy way to do something about it. You could simply choose to not pay people to harm and kill animals for you. Consider adopting a cruelty-free, vegan lifestyle or buying more vegan foods, which in our modern age are plentiful, delicious and healthy. Have this conversation with your friends and family, and have an open discussion about the way we treat our fellow earthlings.

This was submitted as an op-ed to a number of Australian print and online publications with no response, including The Australian, the Sydney Morning Herald, The Advertiser and ABC News.

A future without factory farming? Possible – because of cellular agriculture

A lot of people have misgivings about clean meat or cellular agriculture (lab meat) because they think it will involve ongoing exploitation of animals for their cells. This is a myth. This podcast with Christie Lagally of the Good Food Institute is a fantastic intro to the topic and I highly recommend it.

I strongly believe clean meat will hit market control long before veganism gets close to 100%. This will be better for the animals, the environment, and human health.

GFI provides strategic and technical support to food tech companies (plant-based and cellular agriculture). I believe they are currently the best charitable giving opportunity for reducing the suffering of sentient minds into the future. Here is my reasoning. Check them out and support them if you agree!

My fear: spreading insect suffering to Mars

One thing I’m personally worried about is the spreading of wild-animal suffering to other planets. In the short term, I’m most worried about spreading insects to Mars. I think (and have argued here) that this might happen sooner than we think. The use of insects on Mars for either food or to help terraform seems supported (or at least warranting further thought) by a good deal of the Mars community.

Currently, a potato is in development that looks like it might be able to grow in Mars atmospheric (open) conditions. Biology is a weak point of mine so maybe I’m more worried than I should be. But I fear that if potatoes are solved, insects potentially aren’t that much harder to get to survive on Mars, especially given there are already extremophile insects.

So basically I’d like to loosely propose that shifting public opinion about the use of insects for Mars and anything else is potentially neglected, given the scale here (accidentally or purposefully putting insects on Mars which spread uncontrollably). I don’t know how confident I am about this argument, but wanted to drop it here for discussion.

March to Close All Slaughterhouses

I just got home from the March to Close All Slaughterhouses and a Cube of Truth in Sydney, check out the footage below!

This was the first time I’ve ever taken part in either of these styles of events for animal advocacy. I’ve done some tabling and leafleting before, but this was a lot of fun to be a part of. Walking in the middle of several hundred people march and demanding the same thing you want is a great feeling.

This event was run in most major Australian cities, and was run for a simple reason – to let people know that we want an end to the use of animals and their excretions as food. This cruel practice has gone on too long. The march went through the CBD and parklands, and ended up in front of the New South Wales parliament building.

A Cube of Truth was also run after the march in the middle of a busy mall. To explain exactly what this entails is hard, so I recommend watching the video above. But put simply, we display footage of Australian factory farms and slaughterhouses and talk to people to educate them on what animals experience, and the impact of something so harmless-seeming as eating animals.

It was interesting to see people’s different reactions to the footage. I saw everything from tears to laughter. One lady put her sunglasses on to hide her tears from her daughter. Another mother tried to pull her young (7?) daughter away, but she insisted on staying and watching. A father stopped and pointed out the footage to his son. One gentleman walked past yelling “Bring me sausages!”

I had a few good chats with people who stopped to watch. One man asked me “Where was this footage taken, China?” He seemed to almost fall over when I told him it was in Australia. He said that he had already mostly stopped eating meat and I gave him some information and tips for going vegan.

Of course, as an effective altruist, I had to have a think about how effective both of these events were, as well as the impact of my marginal involvement. Not an easy endeavour by any means, but it’s worth at least thinking about it. I’m well aware that ideas which sound great can actually make things worse.

First the events as a whole – I think the march has the potential to show people that the treatment of animals is an important issue to a growing number of Australians. Hopefully the government payed attention, though I think it would have been much more effective with more people. Considering there are over 8,000 people in the Sydney Vegan Club Facebook page, I was staggered that only about 200 people turned up. I get that people have work, families and other stuff on. But one thing that frustrates me is how willing people are to share and like pictures of food on vegan Facebook pages, but (it seems to me) rarely get involved in outreach and advocacy.

The Cube of Truth got footage into the forefront of people’s minds for at least a few seconds. From reactions and conversations, it seems obvious that most people just have no idea what the life of a food animal really is like. I don’t blame them, I didn’t either until shortly becoming vegetarian 5 years ago. I struggle to see how this awareness-raising could be a bad thing. The one minor worry I do have is that this might cause people to reinforce their beliefs about animals being capable of experiencing pain (which is definitely possible), but this seems unlikely. If I had to put a number on it, I would estimate that 30+ people said they’d consider veganism as a result of the Cube.

My marginal impact was probably low. By this I mean, if I hadn’t gone to either of these events, I don’t think more animals would suffer. For me, the value was in meeting people, refreshing my dedication to the cause of reducing suffering, and practising my outreach skills. I’m a strong believer in spending time with the people you want to be like. If you want to help animals and make a difference, you should hang out with people who feel the same. And when it’s so easy to make a huge difference in their lives (don’t forget that $1 donated to the right place can spare dozens of animals from suffering!) why wouldn’t you?

Blog – USA, Trump and CEO no more

Hey readers! Since I’m heading to USA for 1 year for my research (more on that later!) I’m trialing a different theme. I want to mix my essay/research-like posts with general updates, observations and thoughts about my travels and life that I find interesting. Bear with me and please do let me know of any aspects you like or dislike.

I’m pretty lucky in that I have a fair bit of flexibility in my PhD research, and I spend time thinking about things like asteroid impact risk and the implications of space colonisation. My main focus, however, is on understanding the geomechanical properties of asteroids and other planetary bodies, and developing geophysical techniques to do so. So far this has involved a lot of literature review, and a bit of lab work.

My opportunity to work in USA for one year initially came up in late 2015, a few months before I started my PhD. I was at the 2nd Off-Earth Mining Forum at the University of New South Wales chatting with my future supervisor, when he introduced me to an American.

Michael, this is Rene. Rene is the deputy director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Oh, I have to go, bye!

Suddenly I was standing there sweating in front of a senior figure of JPL, which is the CalTech-run arm of NASA.

So Michael, tell me about your research.” He seemed oblivious to my nerves.

Well I’m starting my PhD next year and will be looking at asteroid structure for mining and asteroid mitigation purposes.

That’s great! We have some people at JPL working on that sort of thing. You should come and visit at some point.

Oh, that sounds like a good idea, I’ll be there.” Inside me was freaking out. Visit NASA? Outside me was somehow cool as a cucumber.

Many months later I got a co-supervisor who worked at JPL, and eventually that lead to their offer to spend up to 12 months there and use their equipment, including a parabolic jet. Don’t tell NASA I hate flying…

I was set to arrive in USA on the 19th of March, when my co-supervisor at JPL broke the bad news. “Because of the new administration, your visa might be delayed for up to 3 weeks from now. There have been some changes.”

Call it hyperbole, but in a roundabout sort of way, Trump may have delayed my trip (*shakes fist*). But in under a month, I’ll be living in sunny Pasadena, California, in the north of Los Angeles.

I’m also stepping down as CEO of Effective Altruism Australia, a position I’ve held since August 2016. I want to talk a little bit more about my experience and what I’ve learned, but I’ll cover that in a later post, stay tuned.

The case against advocating for ‘red meat reduction’

Articles which advocate for a reduction in red meat consumption (like this one and this one), often centred around some proposed government action like a meat tax, are often celebrated by animal advocates as a win. I am less certain that something like a tax on meat to reduce greenhouse gas emissions or benefit human health would be a positive. It would very much depend on the specifics of how it is done.

Below I’ve outlined some of my concerns, and have collated some of the discussions and evidence about this, especially from the Effective Animal Activism – Discussion page. I have used people’s names and comments without seeking their permission first, as they were posted in a public group on Facebook and are already 100% public. If you would like your comment anonymised or removed, or have reason to believe that someone else would, please contact me.

When people talk about reducing meat intake for health and environmental reasons they often focus on red meat, such as beef (as opposed to chicken, fish etc.) as this the main diet related contributor of both issues. Processed and red meat are listed by the World Health Organisation as known and probable carcinogens, while other meat is less obviously bad for health, and other meats are often praised as being sustainable alternatives to red meat.

However, chicken and fish cause far more suffering per kilogram than beef. This is easy to conceptualise when you think about the size of a cow vs a chicken or fish. It clearly takes many chicken or fish to produce the same amount of meat as one cow. Whilst there may be reason to believe that chickens and fish are less capable of experiencing pain and pleasure than cows, it seems apparent that switching from a diet of mostly beef to a diet of mostly chickens would create more suffering.

If people are convinced by environmental and health arguments for not eating red meat, there is a chance they will switch some or all of that meat consumption to other meat. If this is the case, promoting the health and environmental issues of red meat (including through some kind of government intervention like a meat tax) may actually increase suffering. This could come about if the government intervention focused on red meat (e.g. bigger tax on red meat, or only taxing red meat). I think this is actually quite likely, since a government is more likely to care about climate change and human health than animal suffering.

This might also come about from individual promotion of the benefits of eating less red meat (e.g. a Facebook post or handing out a flyer), and thus I would be cautious about how one promotes it.

There is an argument that the path to veganism for some might be through a reduction in red meat intake. This may be true, but I’m wary at best.

Having said all this, I have written an article for the Australian Vegans Journal (forthcoming) about how the Australian government can reduce the public health burden by promoting a plant-based diet. Where possible, I try to ensure that I don’t just promote not eating red meat, or at the very least I follow up with a disclaimer about switching to chicken/fish.

I don’t have a lot of data to back up this fear (some arguments and links I’ve outlined below). At the very least, I am worried that this might happen if the intervention or promotion is not handled correctly.

Because so much discussion has already been had around this topic, mostly through blog and Facebook posts, I’ve summarised some of the conversation below. I’ve definitely missed relevant material (this was a very shallow review that took me around 90 minutes). If you know of something that should be included, please add it as a comment for the future use of other readers. Where possible I’ve tried to add my own comment where I think someone has made a claim that does not hold up to evidence, but I may have missed something (or be wrong myself). Please also add this to the comments.

Of interest was the fact that most of this discussion seems to focus on health, but I’m convinced that it can apply to climate change as well. Take for example the Less Meat Less Heat campaign. On their website they advised:

“…trying out vegetarian or vegan options in place of the times you eat beef and lamb or if you can’t do that then switching it over to lower carbon options such as pork or chicken.” [emphasis mine]

Matt Ball wrote a post about this issue in August 2015.

“Moving from red meat to chicken is a well-documented fact. For example: “‘If you look at dietary recommendations put forth by the U.S. Department of Agriculture [and other health institutions], they are to decrease red meat and substitute lean meat, poultry and fish,’ says Daniel [a nutritional epidemiologist at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center]. ‘We’ve seen in other data that people are gravitating toward poultry.’”

Finally, the National Institutes of Health notes “[t]he growing preference in the US for poultry, but not fish, as a replacement for red meat.”

There are contradictory studies on how much chicken is eaten by people who give up red meat entirely. But for people who reduce the amount of red meat they eat—the majority of people who change their diet for health reasons—all the data are absolutely clear: red-meat reducers eat much, much more chicken. For example, in the largest recent study, those who consumed the lowest amount of red meat ate fifty percent more chicken than those who consumed the most red meat. [Aston, L. M., et al. Meat Intake in Britain in Relation to Other Dietary Components and to Demographic and Risk Factor Variables: Analyses Based on the National Diet and Nutrition Survey of 2000/2001. Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics 26(1), October 18, 2012.]”

If accurate, this seems quite damning for the promotion of health aspects of red meat.

“In other words: I won’t repeat anti-meat arguments. We promote pro-animal arguments. Obviously, it feels good to say: “Vegans have lower rates of disease X.” But the point isn’t to feel good about ourselves or our diet. We’re not out to justify or glorify our choices. Our goal is to keep as many animals from suffering as possible.”

In June 2014, Michael Dickens said:

“According to this survey by Humane League Labs, red meat avoiders eat less chicken than omnivores. This seems to imply that it doesn’t actually harm animals to advocate eating less red meat, as some have argued, since red meatdoesn’t get replaced with chicken.”

To which Wayne Hsuing responded:

“Interesting. But remember correlation != causation.

The question we are facing is not what current red meat avoiders do, but rather how a treatment population will respond to a red meat avoidance strategy. Those are two fundamentally different questions.

I would suggest treating data such as this as a source for hypotheses and nothing more.”

In March 2014 Eitan Fischer made a detailed post about using health arguments which is worth a read in full. I’ve quoted what I think are the most relevant sections below.

“I should preface by saying that I am strongly in favor of focusing on the anti-speciesist message whenever possible. I do think however that there are many individuals for whom the path to veganism will be only through health reasons, at least at first, and that these individuals being vegan will promote veganism generally and facilitate the widespread adoption of antispeciesism. The question I’d like to address here is not whether our approach in advocacy should be to present solely antispeciesist messages, but rather what to make of the potential harm of the health argument.

I will assume that using health arguments, as critics suggest, leads at least some to reduce solely their red meat consumption. As I’ve said before, highlighting health implications of chicken and eggs (e.g. the #1 and #2 greatest sources of cholesterol in our diets), can and should be done, and avoid these concerns. As Nick Cooney has argued in Veganomics, http://humaneleaguelabs.wordpress.com/, and elsewhere, red meat reducers don’t tend to significantly increase chicken consumption. But even if they do…

Argument: Paths that are Local Minima can be Global Maxima – even if the health argument leads to short term net harm, it may very likely lead to long term net benefit.

Hypothesis: the quicker red meat falls significantly out of favor, the quicker the path to animal liberation.
Red meat is, in my opinion, the largest hurdle to veganism, and with that, to antispeciesism. Think about the most ardent opposition to going veg: bacon and steaks. Dairy-alternatives and Beyond Eggs are sufficiently advanced to facilitate large-scale replacement of those foods. Chicken alternatives are rapidly growing in quality and popularity. There are no comparable alternatives for red meat.

Second, think about the implications of a group of cherished foods formerly engrained in the Western diet becoming unpopular. Hamburgers? Hot dogs? If these foods become associated with sickness as tobacco has, this will be a massive change in American consumptive habits and will facilitate further change in the other animal product groups. It will make people more likely to question the benefits and risks of the other products, and encourage moves towards products like Beyond Beef, etc.

Finally, add clear health arguments against red meat to the strongest antispeciesist messages (e.g. highlighting pigs’ experiences), and you get a great advocacy tactic. The more ethically harmful practices can be associated with disease-causing foods, the more success the anti-meat, pro-veg meme will have in spreading widely. According to food-psychology (e.g. Melanie Joy), our minds are good at associating certain foods with negative characteristics (aesthetic, prudential) with other negative qualities (ethical). Getting people to view animal products as harmful in one way will make them more likely to adopt the attitudes that they are harmful in others. From there, it’s a much shorter path to veganism.”

Dave Rolksy responded with:

“This is an interesting hypothesis. However, I think there’s another issue with the health argument. There seems to be a lot of evidence to show that people really suck at sticking to diets. If we pitch veganism as a diet for health reasons we may be getting people to make a short term change only to go back to old habits not long after.”

Nick Cooney responded to Dave’s comment saying that:

“Veganomics has the studies that exist on that – there are a few.”

Elaine Vigneault responded to the original post with:

“I agree with Eitan’s thoughts in the OP. But I think there are two real barriers to “the health argument”:
1) accuracy – many who promote veganism or meat-reduction for health reasons make bogus claims and cite unreliable sources,
2) noise – it’s very easy for the “health argument for veganism” to get lost in the noise of fad diets and pro-meat marketing. The public is confused.

I think, however, that we SHOULD promote the health benefits of plant-based diets ALONG with the animal rights and welfare issues and the environmental costs.”

Jason Ketola said:

“I find it plausible that people’s being closer to vegan in their lifestyle can result in them resisting less to arguments for why they should be vegan. The main problem I have with the question as posed in the original post is that it assumes there is a health argument for veganism.

I wish I could say there was one, and that studies like http://www.sciencedaily.com/rele…/2014/03/140304125639.htm made it, but – despite the categorical claims we sometimes see in the headlines – there isn’t and they don’t. Similarly, there’s no science-based argument to be made that smoking ever is bad for you; in fact, it’s debated whether some amount may be beneficial (hormesis). Fwiw, my non-expert reading of the nutrition literature does not lead me to believe that there’s a nutrition-based argument to be made even for severely-restricting (if not entirely avoiding) animal products in one’s diet.

Aside: The “health argument” seems clouded by a lot of motivated reasoning. So many of us want to believe the evidence is on our side when it comes to nutrition (and beyond that social science related to our favored activist tactics) that we don’t apply the same level of care to our analysis of evidence we take to be in or favor as that which isn’t. This is a phenomenon that pervades the recent spate of “evidence-based” activism literature and books.

I hope we can reframe the original question and explore the following: whether it’s a good idea or effective to use a health argument based on a selective and/or motivated reading of the nutrition literature to promote veganism (i.e., do we throw everything out there even if it’s not entirely accurate or in our favor, because it will lead to people being closer to vegan, and because we have reason to believe that will ultimately put more people into a position where they’ll become vegan).”

I agree with the claim that there is a lot of motivated reasoning in promoting veg*nism, however I find their claims about the lack of evidence for limiting and avoiding animal products to be confusing, especially with WHO’s recent announcement about processed and red meat, and the World Global Cancer Research Fund in 2011 suggesting that there is no safe amount of processed meat that can be consumed.

In August 2016, Nic Waller said:

“I found this research about effective animal activism that came out of the University of Arizona.


– 51% of non-vegetarians are open to the idea of reducing meat consumption.
– People believe “eating healthier” means replacing red meat with chicken.
– “Price, taste and even health put aside, it seems clear that vegetarian foods should try harder to fill the role of chicken nuggets.”
– “A campaign that could unobtrusively and effectively convince chicken/turkey eaters to only reduce their chicken/turkey consumption would have a significant effect on the frequency these people eat meat.”

… and so on.”

Sentience Politics (authored by Adrian Rorheim) wrote a relevant blog post in June 2016 titled ‘China’s meat consumption is going up, not down – and dietary guidelines alone won’t change that’, and Ginny Messina wrote a post titled ‘Bad news for red meat is bad news for chickens’ in August 2011.

The section titled ‘The Health Argument’ on Vegan Outreach’s ‘Advocacy’ page has some relevant information and comments.

The mission of One Step For Animals appears to be cognizant of this issue, and is worth a read.