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.

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.

The ethical consequences of all animals being equally valuable

A common trope I see in ethical debates among vegans is the question of whether degree of intelligence, sentience or capacity to suffer in an animal is a morally relevant factor*. Many seem to argue something to the effect of:

“All animals are equal. Just because we are more intelligent than a pig or a mouse, who are we to say that we are worth more? The life of one human should be equivalent to one of any animal.”

Perhaps this question comes mostly down to choice of ethical framework. As a consequentialist, I’m interested in the consequences of an action when I’m trying to decide moral worth. The criteria I use is whether something increases or decreases suffering (or happiness) in a sentient being. Because of this, I think capacity to suffer, if it varies between species (which I don’t think is that scientifically controversial to say, although there is still debate on how to weight species or even members of a species against each other), is morally relevant.

The practical effect of this is that, all else being equal and simple (which, to be fair, is never the case), I would prefer to reduce some level of suffering in a human than, say, a mouse. However, I tend to preference non-human charities over human charities these days because of their relative effectiveness. I could spare 115,500** non-human animals from a life in a factory farm for the same cost as saving one human from a death from malaria***. Because I don’t give non-human animals a weighting of zero, the numbers are in the favour of the animal charity (typically).

One thing that frustrates me, though, is when people say they value all animals, even insects, equally with humans. I think that people are being dishonest, either to others or to themselves (probably without realising it), when they say this. I’ll give a short example to illustrate why that is the case. Many object to thought experiments such as the trolley problem or variations thereof****, but this is sufficiently realistic that it warrants an answer.

Suppose you get word that a chicken is about to be killed because it can no longer produce eggs. You are aware that you could drive 50 km to buy or rescue the chicken and rehome it, thus giving it a good life. Many who argue that all lives are equal would believe rescuing the chicken is a good thing. However, by driving to rescue the chicken, it is almost a certainty that you will kill at least one insect. Whether it is run over or it hits your windscreen, it will die as a direct result of your saving the chicken. You don’t want the insects to die, and maybe you don’t even think about it, but that doesn’t make it any less morally relevant.

Why is it that, among people who value all animal life equally, they don’t recognise this? I have asked this in public discussions before, and have never received an answer. If you believe all animal life is equal, I invite you to share below in a comment your reaction to this ethical dilemma.

Perhaps one might argue that the world is uncertain, or that we can never eliminate our impact on insects or wild animals. This is true, and I don’t deny it for a moment. But in this very real case, it seems clear that rescuing the chicken will almost always kill more insects than staying at home. By your own logic, you are performing an ethically undesirable act.

Further, consider that even eating solely vegan will almost certainly, inevitably, result in some animal death. Gaverick Matheny estimated that the average American vegan will contribute to the death of 0.3 animals per year through diet alone. But some vegan foods are almost certainly worse than others. Eating bread (wheat) or rice probably contributes to more animal death than, say, lentils (see Tomasik’s work for more on this), but exceedingly few people would ever say that they consciously eat less bread and more fruit to reduce animal death further.

* For the sake of simplicity, I am ignoring wild-animal suffering in this post.

** Rough estimate comparing Against Malaria Foundation and Mercy for Animals. Against Malaria effectiveness is taken to be 1 life saved per $3,300 US. ACE estimates that a donation of $1,000 to Mercy for Animals can spare -10,000 to 80,000 animals from a life of suffering. I take this to mean an average of 35,000 animals for sake of argument (35 animals per dollar). Therefore a $3,300 donation to MFA could spare 115,500 animals.

*** In fact the numbers might be even more skewed. The rich meat eater problem (sometimes called the ‘poor meat eater problem’ or simply the ‘meat eat problem’) suggests that, as people come out of poverty, they tend to eat more meat. This seems to be strongly shown by the case of China. As a result, reducing poverty might actually increase animal suffering.

**** At risk of strawmanning, I’ll share a specific frustration. Often when I ask someone to pick between ‘saving’ an insect and a human, they retort that they would save both, and refuse to pick one.

Edit – Perhaps I should have written a long disclaimer in my original post – it seems like a few people have misinterpreted my intentions here. I’ve had a few people contact me who seem to think I’m trying to make a case against veganism. Hopefully better late than never.

Cards on the table – I am a consequentialist (consequences are what matter for me when making ethical choices), and I value insects less than I value other animals (all else being equal). As part of the series of ethical choices I make every day, I am a vegan. In this case, I probably would save the chicken, unless I thought I could do more good for animals by doing something else with my time.

Edited April 25, 2017 due to incorrect maths.

LA Times Book Festival & pitching bricks at tech workers

I just wanted to quickly share something that blew me away today.

I was at the LA Book Festival, a large part of which is a massive series of panels discussing anything from politics to activism and fiction books. I was at a panel on activism when one of the speakers, Cleve Jones (a well known LGBTQ activist), said this.

“When I see a bus full of young tech workers on a Google bus going to Silicon Valley, my first instinct is to pitch a brick in the window. It would be unfortunate though if I hit the driver.”

This was met with resounding applause and cheering from the audience. I couldn’t believe it, and to be honest I felt a little afraid. He believes that the gentrification of San Francisco due to the tech industry is displacing families, and that the workers don’t realise they are being exploitative. As far as I can tell, there was little relevant context beyond talking about exploitation rather generally.

I’m 90% confident I haven’t misrepresented his views here. The quote might be slightly paraphrased because I have a poor memory, but I’m confident it’s accurate enough.

Episode 2 of the Morality is Hard Podcast released!

Today I expanded on two blog posts I wrote recently, the first being about the recent United Airlines event where a customer was removed from one of their flights and about a controversial art installation coming to Tasmania, Australia. I try to show why both of these events are more complex than they first seem.

The second is about the recent announcement by the Australian Federal Government that they are considering a shark cull in response to a surfer dying to a shark attack in Western Australia. I try to show why this makes no economic sense, even if you are only concerned with Australian human lives.

Download the full episode here

Response to: ‘The Crucible of the Application Process’ by Dillon Bowen

I just read a great article by Dillon Bowen titled ‘The crucible of the application process’. Bowen discussed some of his frustrations about being a young academic applying for jobs and scholarships. In particular, his motivations for wanting to do good were often questioned. I’ve highlighted some key quotes, because I can’t beat Bowen’s words here.

“…the first question they would ask, almost unanimously, was but why do you care about extreme poverty?

Well, because there’s no single problem on earth responsible for more suffering or needless waste of human life, I would respond.

Yes, but why do you care about extreme poverty?

What on earth did they mean? A number of them followed up by asking if I had witnessed anyone living in extreme poverty. No, I hadn’t. Had I or anyone I know ever contracted malaria or a neglected tropical disease? No. Did I feel I had a responsibility to the developing world as a beneficiary of colonialism? Not particularly. How did my privilege and my identity as a White Westerner contribute to my decision to focus on extreme poverty? It didn’t.”

But the thing I don’t understand is why do you care? This was the final question of my Rhodes nomination interview. I can’t properly express the frustration I feel whenever this question is put to me. Every time I try to explain the importance of extreme poverty, and every time my answer isn’t good enough.

It was all I could do at that moment to keep my composure. What do you want me to say? I felt like asking. There are 900 million people living on less than $2 a day. That’s why I care. That’s the reason. There is nothing else. It doesn’t matter that I’m White, it doesn’t matter who my ancestors were, it doesn’t matter what country I’m from. All that matters is that people are suffering and I can help them. What more reason do I need?

This really resonated with me. Unfortunately, I don’t believe this phenomenon is restricted to academia, as Bowen hopes. I had a similar experience when I was going for a job in the energy industry 3 years ago and made it to the final round interviews (2 available jobs out of 6 remaining candidates).

To that point, I had been asked a range of technical and aptitude questions, but also questions about my motivation. This was before I discovered anything like effective altruism, but I was already broadly aligned with the views that you highlight here.

The answers I gave were pretty similar to Bowen’s. My motivation to combat poverty and climate change came not from a personal connection to the issues, but of believing they were the most pressing issues, and the best opportunities for me to do good.

In the final interview, they asked me a question that stumped me. “What makes you wake up and want to be a geologist each day?” I was confused, because I thought I had answered that. I told them again about my reason for choosing the oil and gas industry. I believed the industry had a big role to play in both poverty and climate change, and I wanted to be a part of that. I wanted to change the industry from the inside to become even better.

They weren’t satisfied. I paraphrase the second question, but it was something to the effect of “But what specifically motivates you?”

Was it so incomprehensible that I would want to do a job because of extrinsic reasons? I told them I woke up every morning and watched the news to remind myself of the horrors in the real world, to motivate myself to work harder and try to stop them.

Finally, I told them that my father was in the oil and gas industry too, and from a young age my family and I had gone camping and collected fossils and rocks and developed a fascination. They seemed happier with that. I didn’t get the job.

United Airlines and Dark Mofo

Hey guys it’s Michael, and today I bring you another round of That thing you’re outraged about is probably more complicated than you think. Two things to discuss today; the United Airlines passenger event in USA, and the Dark Mofo art installation, to be displayed at the Mona art museum in Tasmania, Australia.

First, United Airlines. In short, United Airlines needed to bump four paying customers from a flight to accommodate four United staff, who were needed at another location. Passengers were asked to volunteer their seat in exchange for compensation. Finally, still needing seats, United randomly selected some passengers. One passenger didn’t want to leave, citing that he was a doctor and had to see patients the next day. Police were called to remove him, and the passenger ended up being injured. I’m not sure what the extent of his injuries were (certainly not critical), but he was bleeding from his face.

While this event was very unfortunate and bad for the passenger in question (and made for some great memes), there are some important things to keep in mind before you get too upset (though it’s probably too late for that). These points are taken from this podcast, which had a good discussion on the finer details. Some salient points to consider:

  • The physical mistreatment of the customer was by the police, not by United. They were acting in the interests of the remaining customers (supposedly). Yet somehow much of the negative attention has been on United.
  • This isn’t that unusual. The business model of airlines is to book more customers than there are seats, with the assumption that some will not turn up. Occasionally this doesn’t work, so they pay people off. However despite these occurrences, airlines still run this business model because airlines are a super competitive business.
  • The story goes that, due to bad weather and some other extenuating circumstances, the United staff who were taking customer’s seats had to get to their destination or an entire other flight would be cancelled. Would we really say this customer should have kept their seat at the expense of a plane full of seats?

Is there more to this story? Almost definitely. Was United justified in their actions (accounting for the fact that they didn’t control the police aggression)? I’m leaning towards yes right now. The passenger was randomly selected and they refused to leave, wasting everyone else’s time and risking another entire flight. Sure, they paid for their ticket and they were entitled to it, but real life has extenuating circumstances sometimes, and people need to act.

The second story involves a three hour performance with a slaughtered bull, which on the outset appears reminiscent of a ritual. RSPCA has said that the art is disrespectful, but are very careful to say that they don’t object to the slaughter of the animal itself. It seems their issue with it is the treatment of the body. The art installation will be coming to the Mona art museum, a world-famous museum in Tasmania, Australia.

As a prelude, I like to steelman stuff, which means finding the merits of an argument that you don’t necessarily agree with, and maybe even make a stronger case for it than your adversary is making. I think this is a very useful thing to do to mitigate your own biases and ensure that your position truly is the correct one. Having said that, while I am in some ways defending the art installation here, I still don’t really know whether it’s a good thing. I’m just trying to make the point that it’s almost certainly not as easy an answer as you think.

This whole thing has two groups of people very upset – vegan animal advocates, and non-vegan animal advocates. The vegan animal advocates generally object to any use of animals for entertainment, and this falls under that category. The non-vegan animal advocates object to this because it’s… disrespectful or something. To that, I’ll just point out briefly that what is done to the animals whose products you consume might also be considered disrespectful (and induces suffering, if you care about tangible stuff that the animals would actually care about), you just don’t see it.

So I saw an article about this in my Facebook news feed and scrolled right past. I caught the gist, and was mildly against it. But then my mother, an artist, shared this blog post by David Walsh, founder and owner of the Mona art gallery. It was a long, but very enjoyable read, and I highly recommend it. I’ve highlighted some of my favourite paragraphs below, then say a few things.

All that verbiage and I still don’t know whether Nitsch’s performance is justified. I can argue that it does good by creating awareness of moral hypocrisy (highlighting the slaughter of millions of beasts a year for unneeded food) but it is hard to find a way that avoids it being categorised as a direct action, and humans generally think doing good by doing bad is wrong.

Yvette Watt, Tasmanian local and, I later found out, a ‘noted vegan crusader’, expressed her opinion on Facebook that it was not good art. For my purposes, it is good art. I believe that it has already spiked a conversation (thank you, Yvette) about the appropriateness of slaughter and Dark Mofo hasn’t even happened yet. That isn’t what the artist intends, but Mona has a history of repurposing art to serve its own psychological or political purpose.

If you don’t think the side-effect argument has merit consider this. We have a work at Mona by Jannis Kounellis (see this blog post). When whim pervades, we hang chunks of meat from hooks. Nobody cares. The only reason I can think of as to why that is okay, but Nitsch’s meat isn’t, is that Kounellis’ meat is killed for food and repurposed (side-effect), whereas Nitsch’s is killed for performance and later eaten (the side-effect is the only ‘legitimate’ purpose). I hate that Nitsch insists on eating the meat. I want clarity of intent—I want the audience to ponder why meat for food is okay (at least people aren’t protesting at Mona’s barbecue) but meat for ritual or entertainment isn’t.

Basically Walsh is making a utilitarian steelman case for the art installation, and he does a pretty good job. I’m skeptical as to how many animal product consumers would look at this art and be turned off animal exploitation/cruelty in general, and there is an argument to be made that this might desensitize people to violence, but the case seems plausible.

I guess what I might say to vegan animal advocates (a cohort I consider myself to be a part of), is, how much of this protest is symbolic, and how much is practical? If the show is cancelled, we might save one or more bulls. You could do that much good by donating around $1 to The Humane League. It might be a symbolic gesture in support of animals, but I don’t place much value in symbolism unless it has tangible effects on present or future wellbeing and suffering (which maybe it does, I just don’t see that being argued).

Everyone gets upset at stuff without thinking about the finer details. Even I will make a blog post sometimes without doing as much background reading as I should. From time to time, it bites me in the ass. The best one can do is be as careful as possible, and make a point of admitting and correcting your mistakes.

Why spending money on shark culling is a terrible idea

A 17 year old surfer in Western Australia has been killed by a shark. This is, of course, a tragedy, and my thoughts are with the girls friends and family for the loss. However, in response the Australian Federal Government has said that they are open to a shark cull to ‘protect people’, which would be equally tragic, if not much greater. Let’s look at some numbers.

First, I need to acknowledge that I think this is bad because I intrinsically value animal suffering, and feel like this might impact animal suffering in a negative way. But even if we just look at humans (and not only that, specifically humans in Australia!), this idea would be an incredibly inefficient way of reducing suffering and/or death.

Here I’m going to make some simplified assumptions to make the case for culling seem more attractive than it is, then show that it still doesn’t make sense. From 1958 to 2014, 72 people died to shark attacks in Australia (536 attacks total). Let us suppose that for a one-time investment (unrealistic) of $10 million (unrealistically low) we can prevent all shark attacks in Australian waters for the next 56 years (unrealistic). If we suppose 72 more people would have died in this time frame, this would be an estimated cost of $138,888 per life saved*.

Even with these extremely optimistic assumptions, that is an exceedingly poor return on investment. The Against Malaria Foundation can save a human life for approximately $6,000 AUD by preventing cases of malaria. But even if we care much more about people in our own country than in Africa (which, to be fair, governments have to), there are still more effective ways of reducing death.

For example, the median cost per quality adjusted life year (QALY) gained for Australians by interventions for specific diseases such as diabetes is $3,700 AUD.

Do we care about all suffering, or just suffering specifically experienced by humans and caused by sharks? That would be silly, but then, government policy doesn’t always seem to make much sense. The steelman of this might be that they are trying to win publicity points (and aren’t ignorant of cost-benefit analyses). Sharks are a topical issue today, and the government wants people to like them. But let’s not pretend the policy would make any rational sense to someone interested in improving the world, even if you only care about animals of your own species that happen to within an arbitrarily defined political boundary.

I urge the Australian Federal Government to please reconsider any thoughts of a shark cull, and to focus on helping sentient beings in a significantly more efficient manner.

* One might even be able to make an argument that a shark cull would increase human deaths. I have no numbers for this argument and therefore place low confidence on it, but if a shark cull is incomplete (i.e. doesn’t kill all sharks), yet more people end up swimming because they think it’s safer, more people might die.

Morality is Hard podcast launched today

I’m pretty excited to announce that the pilot episode of a podcast I’ve been working on over the last few weeks is finally available. I had a chat with Rob Farquharson about some tricky topics, including no-platforming, artificial intelligence and wild-animal suffering.

Ever since I became interested in philosophy about 4 years ago, and especially moral philosophy, I’ve noticed that determining the most ethical course of action in specific, real world situations is actually quite hard. This doesn’t seem to reflect in the actions of most people, who seem to assume that it is easy. I’m not really sure why this is, maybe they like to believe that it’s easy to be a good person. In any case, morality is not as simple as you want it to be.

This podcast seeks to shed light on some of the most difficult ethical questions today.

As the pilot episode, I’m really looking for feedback on everything from the production to the content. I want to know if this is something that people would be interested in listening to before I continue spending time working on it and interviewing more people. Also, if you have any suggestions for future topics to discuss or people to interview, I want to know that too. Anything relating to ethics is fair game.

If you enjoyed this, please share it with your friends and like us on Facebook.

You can see the episode here, or listen via Youtube.

If you think I’m wrong about anything I said in the podcast, please let me know. I am very willing to change my mind on any issue, even my ethical framework.

80,000 Meals

You have 80,000 meals in your life*. How do you best use them to make a difference? Find out with our free coaching service at 80,000 Meals to pick a diet that suits your personal fit and chosen cause! Will prioritising fruit over bread help reduce or increase insect suffering? Find out here!

Most other guides on meals focus on one cause, like animal suffering, climate change or health. This guide combines all causes to determine a diet that will most reduce suffering in the universe.

This is, of course, a play on 80,000 Hours, a careers advice organisation named after the fact that the average human will work for 80,000 hours in their career. It was amusing to me that the average number of meals of a human born today is roughly the same.

While the above is entirely tongue in cheek, I think there is an important point to note here. We rarely think a lot about what we eat beyond taste, or if we do, we only consider a few factors. Even people interested in improving the world as much as possible might only consider cost, healthfulness, and farmed animal suffering, which might lead someone to adopt a vegan diet, for example.

However, even within a vegan diet, there is much room for optimisation. Not all vegan foods are equally cheap, healthy, and environmentally friendly. If we are concerned about the suffering of wild animals and insects, some vegan foods can still be far better than others. For example, wheat (and therefore bread) and rice are estimated to be worse than lentils.

Even for selfless reasons, taste can be a factor. A diet without much variety might be cheap and healthy, but it may lead one to burn out, both in terms of their diet and their other altruistic endeavours.

Health is probably more important than people think. Diet isn’t the only thing that affects health, but it does play a substantial role. If your health suffers, your motivation and possibly even your life span might be reduced, thus decreasing your earning potential (and therefore how much good you can do through donations) and your direct impact through your career or projects.

Over my life, I might reasonably expect to spare 5293-24,382 animals from a life of suffering** by adopting a vegan lifestyle (at least through my direct impact), but if that reduces my earnings potential by just 1%, thus meaning I can only donate $6,400 less***, resulting in 22,400 fewer animals spared***.

If I wanted to maximise the amount of good I could do in my life, combining the various factors would mostly be guesswork. I can be vegan and try to eat healthily, cheaply, indulge in tasty food sometimes to not burn out, and avoid foods I think are particularly damaging to wild animals and insects, but I have no idea how to combine these to truly maximise my impact on suffering in the universe. Some diets might be more effective than others at an individual level, but weirder and harder to get other people to adopt.

I believe there is a real gap for some research like this. Maybe not enough to found 80,000 Meals, but enough for a rudimentary analysis. Maybe someone could read this and instantly say that there is no way this would be worth the time, but I think someone should at least estimate the value of a resource like this existing.

Brian Tomasik has done a commendable first pass at looking at the impacts of crop cultivation on wild animals here, but he has only covered some foods, and has not covered a lot of the parameters I’ve listed here such as cost and impacts on motivation.

There are a lot of meta-factors at play here. Would many people even listen to or use such a guide? Is the world so complex and changing that any recommendations would be too uncertain to be meaningful? These are all questions I hope a rudimentary analysis could examine.

As an end note, I’m not saying that you should avoid being vegan because of burnout or anything here. Maybe a vegan diet actually increases your motivation on average. I think being vegan while paying some attention to health and food cost is a pretty easy baseline for doing good with your meals. But it’s more complicated than that, and I don’t know how to truly optimise this part of my life or if it’s worth trying.

* This estimate assumes 365 days in a year, 3 meals in a day, and an average lifespan of 73 years.

** Using the figures in Section 3 of this review – switching from an average American omnivore diet to a vegan one might lead you to expect to require 32 fewer land animals and 468-502 fewer marine animals each year. Due to supply and demand elasticities (explained in more detail here), ACE estimates that consuming 30 fewer land animals will result in 1.8-21 fewer animals being farmed, and consuming 232 fewer marine animals results in 35-144 fewer being killed. Therefore, switching diet is estimated to result in 1.9-22.4 fewer land animals and 70.6-311.6 fewer marine animals, for a total of 72.5-334 fewer animals each year. Over a 73 year life, this results in 5,293-24,382 fewer animals being killed or farmed.

*** 80,000 hours times $40 per hour is 3.2 million. 99% of this is 3.168 million, a difference of $32,000. ACE estimates that a donation of $1,000 to Mercy for Animals can spare -10,000 to 80,000 animals from a life of suffering. I take this to mean an average of 3,500 animals for sake of argument (3.5 animals per dollar). Say I donate 20% of my income over my life, I would be donating $6,400 less, resulting in 22,400 fewer animals spared. I intend on donating more than 20% of my income over my life, and I believe $40 per hour (inflation adjusted) is also a lower bound, making this a very conservative estimate.

Edited April 25, 2017 due to incorrect maths.

Los Angeles – first experiences

So I’ve arrived in Los Angeles. It’s a big, smoggy city, but I’m on the northernmost end just in the southwest shadow of Mt San Antonio, where the smog is less noticeable. My first day at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory is tomorrow, but I just want to share a few observations I’ve found amusing so far.

  • Taxi drivers get confused if you try and sit in the front seat. My driver had his lunch on the front seat, and as I patiently waited for him to move it, he just stared at me and eventually said, you don’t want to sit in the back sir? Back seat it was.
  • I gave the same taxi driver a note slightly larger than the fare, and was going to tell him he could keep it all as a tip, but he pocketed it before I could say it was a tip.
  • Coffee here is more expensive, bigger, hotter (I burned my tongue) and tastes slightly worse. Even a small coffee at JPL is larger than a large in Australia. The rumours were true!
  • I saw a SpaceX rocket stage casually standing upright near the airport. As they do.
  • “Pardon me, baked goods?” Is an acceptable way of asking saying “Hey mate, where’s your bread?”
  • No one here knows what a kettle is. I asked one lady if she had a kettle, and she looked a bit confused, then asked if I meant a coffee maker. I said, no, that thing that boils water. She asked why I don’t use a pot on the stove. Fair point…
Me: Huh USA doesn’t seem that different so far. Also me: $6 US for a soy coffee!?

Small rant about the otherwise perfect flight. I ordered a vegan meal and double checked with the airline several days before, and even went so far as to confirm the ingredients. I was given a pasta with cheese for lunch. I said, excuse me, I think this has cheese, I ordered the vegan meal? They said, oh, sorry, this is listed as vegan, let me see what I can find. He came back and said, try this one sir. It was an identical cheese pasta.

A very similar thing happened with a friend of mine on the same airline (United Airlines), and she said she complained until they gave her a voucher for several hundred dollars, which is what I intend to do. All I can say is, if you fly United (or anyone) and the same thing happens, complain and get a voucher until the only sound business plan is to get their shit together.