Response to criticism of Aspeys’ cruise

A recent video has accused vegan activist James Aspey of hypocrisy. From what I can gather from the video, Aspey has taken part in a cruise with a number of vegans, where he gave talks which the video accuses of ‘preaching to the choir’. The video argues that Aspey contributed to environmental damage by taking part in the cruise, and is therefore hypocritical.

It seems like the main objection here is not that Aspey spent money and time on the cruise. If they were criticising the money he spent on the travel, arguing that what he is spending it on is ineffective at reducing suffering and that there were more effective things he could be doing with it, I’d be inclined to agree. But a) that doesn’t seem to be the argument, and b) we all spend money on things we don’t need when we could be further reducing suffering.

I don’t like cruise ships either, but most people don’t donate all of the money they would spend on leisure activities on donations to the worlds most effective environmental or vegan charities (as much as I do wish people would donate more). Are we not all doing the same every time we spend money on ourselves instead of reducing environmental damage or suffering?

I didn’t see a figure for the volume of emissions per person as a result of going on the cruise, but I’d be very surprised if it were more than a few tonnes. This amount can be offset via a donation of several dollars to Cool Earth. If we ignore the money being spent on the cruise that’s could otherwise be donated (that doesn’t seem to be the objection here?), anyone spending $10 on a meal when they could spend $5 and donate $5 is causing roughly the same degree of damage, unless you don’t think that an inaction can be as morally culpable as an action. I think you probably already believe this, since many people would agree that walking past someone dying and not saving them when you could for no cost is as bad as killing them yourself.

Of course, I still think spending too much money on leisure activities is bad (I still do it more than I’m happy with) and encourage people to consider donating more to effective charities (for ones own happiness, as well as for the greater good), but if we are upset with Aspey for taking part in the cruise, we should be upset with some 90% of vegans who spend money on leisure activities.

I could steelman the video by expanding the argument to saying that Aspey would have been better off giving the money to an effective cause and doing some advocacy locally. I don’t know the content of Aspeys’ talk, and in fact the video makes no effort to address it (the creator of the video, KARen Savior, is a well known critic of Aspeys’ work), but let me also steelman his involvement. If he was using the talk to get the other vegans to become more effective advocates for animals, that may well have been a decent (still not the best) use of money.

We don’t like to think about it, but every time we spend money on ourselves, there is an opportunity cost.

As an aside, I have had some incredibly frustrating conversations about the original video here and here, including receiving ad hominem attacks and a variety of other fallacies.

The intriguing history and ethics of having a lawn

From a young age I had resolved to never have a lawn if I owned my own house. This might seem incredibly trivial, but as I’ll show, it isn’t. Lawns are something I have thought about again several times throughout my life, each time becoming increasingly validated in my decision to not have a lawn.

My first (and perhaps partially childish) motivation was a general dislike for gardening. My childhood home had a large garden and I helped out from time to time. I didn’t see the point at the time, though I understand now that there are some benefits to property value and people can derive some enjoyment from having a lawn (though I never really did).

Many years later, I learned an interesting fact from Yuval Noah Harari’s book Sapiens about the history of lawns. Here are some quotes:

A young couple building a new home for themselves may ask the architect for a nice lawn in the front yard. Why a lawn? ‘Because lawns are beautiful,’ the couple might explain. But why do they think so? It has a history behind it.

Well kept lawns demanded land and a lot of work, particularly in the days before lawnmowers and automatic water sprinklers. In exchange, they produce nothing of value. You can’t even graze animals on them, because they would eat and trample the grass. Poor peasants could not afford wasting precious land or time on lawns. The neat turf at the entrance to chateaux was accordingly a status symbol nobody could fake. It boldly proclaimed to every passerby: ‘I am so rich and powerful, and I have so many acres and serfs, that I can afford this green extravaganza.’” [bolded emphasis my own]

The last sentence really stuck with me. It seemed true even today – lawns are almost purely a status symbol. They don’t produce fruit or veggies and barely have a useful carbon storage effect. I felt more justified in my attitude towards lawns.

Around the same time, I had become convinced by arguments about wild-animal suffering. If you are not familiar with this argument, I strongly encourage you to see this introduction, but in short, it is plausible that many wild-animals (including invertebrates such as insects) have lives with more suffering than wellbeing. If you accept this, then at the least you should accept that it would be wrong to bring these lives in to existence (for the same reason it is wrong to bring farmed animals in to existence when they will experience so much suffering).

Creating a lawn can be an effective way of increasing insect suffering, as it increases the available plant biomass for insects to breed and increase their population. Brian Tomasik argues for having gravel instead of lawns to reduce insect suffering. Tomasik’s rough estimate shows that the amount of suffering one can reduce by replacing a lawn with gravel is immense.

Having lawns can even be bad for the environment, especially if you regularly mow them. The carbon that would otherwise be stored in the grass is cut off and released to the atmosphere via decay. Some carbon would be stored in the ground in the grass and humus still, however the emissions from mowing ones’ lawn should outweigh this. As an alternative, white gravel would reflect sunlight, having a net cooling effect compared to grass, which would absorb heat.

Long story short – I don’t ever want a grass lawn and I wish this view was more commonly held – it’s more important than it seems at first glance.

How effective is the ban on single-use plastic straws and bags?

Recently, Australia has had a wave of bans on plastic straws and plastic bags from being available at many bars, restaurants and supermarkets. The main objective appears to be to reduce the amount of plastic that ends up in the ocean (the famous Great Pacific Garbage Patch comes to mind). This plastic often breaks down in to microplastic – small particles that don’t further break down and end up being eaten by small fish, thus entering the food chain. A laudable goal to be sure.

However, given what I know about the relative effectiveness of interventions, I wonder if this is the most effective (or even relatively effective) at reducing plastic relative to other things one can do. I will note that I already have pre-existing opinions on this, but will do my best to make an unbiased assessment.

There are two ways to look at this. One is to consider the actions of an individual. In other words, how effective is it for me to stop using plastic straws and bags relative to doing some other thing. The other way is to consider it from the perspective of a business or other actor such as a campaigner who is seeking to get businesses stop stocking such items. I will focus on the first one. Examining the impact of working to reduce plastic bag and straw use in general relative to reducing plastic use in other cases seems hard and not well suited for a brief examination.

First, I will estimate the volume of plastic used in these two cases by the average Australian.

Plastic use from single-use plastic bags

Woolworths [an Australian supermarket] currently gives out more than 3.2 billion single-use HDPE plastic bags every year, and according to a 2009 study, about 1 per cent of those, or 30 to 40 million, find their way into the environment. [From here]

Woolworths isn’t the only source of plastic bags in Australia, but it’s a good start. We can probably assume that the 1% figure of these bags getting to the environment is representative of the bags as a whole. A fact sheet by Keep Queensland Beautiful states that Australians use 4 billion plastic bags each year. This doesn’t seem to agree with the previous stat, as it’s unlikely that Woolworths accounts for 80% of the plastic bag distribution.

For arguments sake, let’s assume 4 billion bags per year with 1% of those reaching the environment. That’s 40 million bags per year, or about 1.5 per Australian. Assuming you’re consuming about the average (or were before the bans and public pressure), switching from single-use plastic bags to an alternative should mean 1.5 less plastic bags in the environment per year.

I found it surprisingly hard to find a value for the weight of a single-use plastic bag. In lieu of just weighing one myself, the best I could do was this document from a website called which gave a value of 9.3 grams. This actually seems kind of high to me. This results in a value of 13.95 grams in the environment per person per year. I’m very open to revising this if someone can find a more reputable estimate.

I will also note that alternatives to single-use plastic bags aren’t necessarily better for the environment, and could actually be worse. Just one example of this is that a ban on plastic bags results in an increase in bin liner plastic sales. This is the same kind of mindless optimism I see in other areas including fair trade, organic food, and some renewable energies. Just because something sounds good, doesn’t mean it is better in all aspects.

A review of the ACT ban in 2012 found that bin liner sales had indeed increased by 31 per cent a year after the ban came into place.

But a second review in 2014 found that sales had settled back down to pre-ban levels. [from here]

Plastic use from single-use plastic straws

Australians use around 10 million plastic straws each day, or 3.65 billion per year. For lack of a figure I’ll assume 1% of these end up in the environment as well, giving a figure of 36.5 million. This gives about 1.4 straws less in the environment per person per year.

It was also hard to find an estimate of weight for plastic straws, but this paper suggests around 0.45 grams, or 0.63 grams in the environment per person per year. This gives a total of 14.58 grams in the environment per person per year from the combined sources.

We’ve examined the effectiveness of a ban on single-use plastic bags and straws. Let’s now look at two alternatives.

Alternative #1 – Veganism

A vegan lifestyle is well-known to significantly reduce ones’ impact on the environment in general (as well as farmed animal suffering), but lets’ suppose we are specifically interested in plastic. When one thinks of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, images of plastic bottles and bags probably comes to mind. However, 46% of the total trash is estimated to be fishing nets (much of which is made of plastic), with the majority of the rest being miscellaneous fishing gear, not consumer plastics.

Accepting this, it still seems hard to estimate the relative impact of purchasing fish vs consumer plastics. With consumer plastics we can easily measure volume, however to estimate the impact of fishing we would need to calculate the volume of nets used per person per year, as well as the relative rate of loss to ocean of consumer plastics vs fishing gear. Simplistically, one could argue that since the volume of plastic in the ocean is mostly from fishing gear, eliminating fish from ones’ diet should have a greater impact than eliminating consumer plastics.

One estimate suggests 640,000 tonnes of fishing gear is left in the ocean per year. That’s an average of 84 grams per person per year (globally). However Australians consume around 28 kg of fish per year as of 2013, while average consumption globally was 16.4 kg in 2005. Assuming the fish Australians consume is about as plastic-polluting as the global average, we should multiply our 84 grams per person by 1.7, giving 143 grams.

Eliminating your use of plastic straws and bags might seem easier than adopting a plant-based diet for many people (though I’d argue it’s easier than you probably think), but you’d be kidding yourself if you thought you were having a big impact by doing only the former.

A cautionary note

Whenever I talk about the environmental benefits of a vegan lifestyle, I feel compelled to tell my cautionary tale. I believe it is possible that advocating for the environmental benefits of veganism could actually increase farmed animal suffering. In short, this is because the primary cause of environmental damage from eating animals is from red meat. If this causes people to eat less red meat and more poultry or fish, they would be causing more sentient minds to suffer, since it takes many chickens or fish to get the same volume of food as a cow.

This case is a little different, since I’m talking about the damage of fishing, but I would still encourage anyone convinced by my argument to try veganism rather than just eat no fish*.

Alternative #2 – Reducing other plastic use

It seems likely to me that the plastic from straws and bags is only a small part of what a consumer consumes, even if we ignore fishing nets. One has to wonder whether reducing their plastic use in other areas could have a vastly greater impact.

As of 2016, Australia produces around 3 million tonnes of plastic per year. Around 130,000 tonnes of this plastic is estimated to end up in the ocean each year. Interestingly, this is 4 times the proportion of plastic from bags that ends up in the environment. This gives 5.4 kg of plastic in the ocean total per person per year. I don’t know the spread of the different sources or how easy it is to do anything about them, but we can clearly see that the amount of plastic in the environment as the result of plastic bags and straws is very small indeed (0.01458 vs 5.4

It seems reasonable to say that reducing your plastic use in general would have a greater impact than just eliminating your plastic bag and straw use.

The ableism objection to banning plastic straws

Some have claimed that the ban on plastic straws is actually ableist, because some people rely on plastic straws to be able to drink. This makes sense, and I think the ban should perhaps be a little more nuanced to allow for this case (e.g. bars/restaurants can still give someone a straw if they need it for health/safety reasons). They could also use biodegradable or reusable straws, but not all of these are safe for the consumer (can pose a choking hazard, aren’t positionable, etc.).

However, one has to wonder – if someone is relying on a straw for safety reasons, why don’t they bring their own? Not all venues stocked plastic straws to begin with, so what did people who needed them do in those cases?


I think the ban on plastic straws and bags is ineffective. Not only that, I think it is a serious waste of time and money. One might retort with something like ‘it’s surely better than doing nothing’, but it gives people a false sense of achieving something and solving the problem. Of course, you could (and should) do all three of the above.

One surprising take away of this for me was that the plastic released to the environment from fishing was still a very small part of the plastic released to the ocean in general.

Some of my peers have started putting estimates on the time it takes to write posts like these, so I’ll start doing the same. This took me around 2 hours total to research and write.

* I’d like to share my disdain for pescatarianism here. It is potentially worse than doing nothing at all, but people think they are either reducing animal suffering or environmental damage.

Edit – It has been noted to me that the issue with straws is not just the volume of plastic, but the shape. It can pose a choking hazard more easily than some other plastics. Fair enough, but fishing nets also trap marine life pretty easily.

Two impactful things you can do this World Environment Day

Happy World Environment Day! Last year I wrote a post about what you can do for the environment. This year I’m doing something similar, but going for a lighter format. Enjoy!

Days like these are great opportunities to reflect and make sure we are doing all we practically can to protect the environment. Today, I’d like to focus on two small things that we as individuals can do which are highly effective but not very often talked about.

Cool Earth

Within a particular cause area, some charities can be as much as 1000’s of times more effective than others. So if you’re going to donate to an environmental charity, it’s crucial to make sure your $$ are having the most impact they can. One stand out environmental charity is Cool Earth.

Cool Earth works to stop deforestation, and are so effective that $1.34 US donated to them reduces greenhouse gas emissions by 1 tonne of CO2-equivalent. As of 2016, this was one of the best charities for reducing GHG emissions.

The average American uses about 20 tonnes of CO2 per year as of 2006, so you could offset a years worth of emissions for just $26.8.

Livestock industry

Over the past few decades, the impact of the livestock industry on the environment has become increasingly clear. Below I’ve outlined a few key statistics to show just big the impact is (stats are relative to the average US meat eating diet).

Image from Stat from
Image from Stat from
Image from Stat from

Adopting a plant-based diet is more effective for reducing your CO2 emissions than forgoing showers, having solar panels, and using bikes instead of cars.

So what can you do about this? Well for starters, you should definitely consider not having any animal products today (I might be too late for that), but also you should consider having less or no animal products in the future. It’s becoming easier every day with increasing access to cheap, delicious plant-based food.

I initially stopped eating meat because I became convinced that it was one of the most effective things I could do to help the environment, and it was way easier than I expected. I’d like to encourage everyone to try it. Just start with one vegan day a week and work from there.

Great tasting food doesn’t have to contain animal products. If you live in Sydney check out Soul Burger for some plant based deliciousness, like this ‘chicken’ and ‘bacon’ burger (my weekly guilty pleasure)!

If you need some help or inspiration, check out this guide.

For a more detailed look at the research behind the environmental impacts of the livestock industry, start with these:

Why rational animal lovers should donate to animal charities even if they aren’t vegan

This is something I’ve thought a lot about but have not really expressed much in writing. When it comes down to it, almost everyone cares about non-human animals in some way. No one really wants to see a pig, or a cow, or a dog or a whale suffer, just as no one really wants to see a human suffer. Even with this in mind, many people say that they just can’t go vegan because it would be too hard, too expensive, they enjoy the taste of animal products too much, or they are worried about their health.

All of these concerns can and have been addressed, but let’s suppose we grant that some people just don’t want to be vegan themselves, even if they care about non-human animals. Assuming this individual (possibly you, dear reader) is rational, they should be happy if there are more vegans in the world, even if they never become one themselves. After all, a lot of people care about the environment, but go to varying lengths of effort when it comes to recycling etc. However, they are still happy for the sake of the environment when someone else goes to more effort than them.

Unless you can find a flaw here, you must surely agree that people who care about non-human animals must at the very least be happy about there being more people in the world trying to reduce animal suffering. Having accepted this, know that there are many ways you can reduce animal suffering without being vegan yourself.

One of the most effective ways to do this is to donate money to a highly effective animal charity. I am a big fan of the work that Animal Charity Evaluators do, particularly their recommendations on effective animal charities. For as little as a $10 donation to one of these charities, it’s possible to spare dozens of animals from a life of suffering. Even for a non-vegan, this is a very small sacrifice to make to have a huge impact. Check out their top recommended charities here, or consider donating directly to ACE to maximise your impact.

I truly believe that, if you care about non-human animals but don’t support non-human animal charities, unless you are financially unable, or you think that there are more effective ways to reduce suffering with your money, there is surely some serious cognitive dissonance going on.

Morality is Hard podcast episode 6 – Elie Hassenfeld of GiveWell

After a short hiatus, the Morality is Hard podcast is back with a new interview featuring Elie Hassenfeld, one of the co-founders of GiveWell. Find the interview on iTunes, below or here!

Elie Hassenfeld and I spoke about the charity he co-founded with Holden Karnofsky, GiveWell, and how it analyses charities to determine how effective they are at alleviating suffering.

We also spoke about Open Philanthropy Project, a sister organisation of GiveWell, which started with the question of “How can we accomplish as much good as possible with our giving?”

Unfortunately due to venue and time constraints, we had the record the interview in the back room of a restaurant, and you can heard some of the chatter in the background. I hope that doesn’t take away from the content too much!

If you’re interested in finding out how to make sure your charitable donations are having as much impact as possible, this is the interview for you.

Don’t forget to follow us on Facebook to stay up to date with the podcast and to join the discussion.

Melbourne steakhouse protest – acceptable in what circumstance?

Several days ago, a group of activists peacefully (by all accounts) entered a Melbourne, Australia, steakhouse restaurant with signs, and began repeating phrases relating to the treatment of animals in slaughterhouses. The aim: to show the diners what had happened to the food on their plate while it was still sentient.

I wanted to weigh in on this, but not for the same reason many other animal advocates are. There has certainly been a general divide among the animal advocacy community regarding whether this was an effective way of achieving our ultimate goal – reducing suffering and/or exploitation of all sentient beings.

I actually don’t know whether this was effective. It has been a good platform for raising awareness and may show that a lot of people take this seriously (pros), but it may backfire, as it seems to have already done, and make people think those who care about all non-human animals are ‘crazy’ (con). Both sides are true. Which one outweighs the other? I don’t know.

The point I want to get to here is this: I think that a lot of non-vegans who are opposed to this protest aren’t actually opposed to the means as they say, but to the message behind the protest. Let me give you a thought experiment.

Suppose a new restaurant opened up in your neighborhood, and you find out they serve human. Humans who did not want to killed for the enjoyment of others. You might feel compelled to go and protest at this restaurant. You might feel a duty to educate the diners there on what the humans went through during their final days; the pain, the fear. I’m willing to go out on a limb and suggest that you would feel comfortable with the exact same peaceful protest that took place in Melbourne. If not you personally, you would surely be in support of the protest.

This is why I believe that many people opposed to this protest are opposed to it for different reasons than they claim. Not all, of course, and maybe not even most. After all, there are many vegans who opposed the protest. But I would ask you, dear reader, to make sure you ask yourself exactly why you are against the protest. Is it because you think the protest was harmful, or disrespectful? Or is it because you don’t really agree with the message behind it?

2017 Per Capita Young Writers’ Prize 1st place: Effects of Livestock Industry on Climate Change and the Environment

I’m pretty chuffed to have won equal first prize for the 2017 Per Capita Young Writers’ Prize. I was hesitant to apply at first, as I didn’t think an article about the livestock industry would be seen as relevant enough to do well, but I’m glad I tried. Below is the essay in full.

The question was: “If you were a Federal Cabinet Minister in a leading portfolio (Environment, Health, Education, Housing, Transport, Industry, Science, Treasury) what would be your principal policy priorities, taking account of the long-term national interest? Explain the reasons for your priorities and outline your strategies for implementation.”

As the Minister for the Environment and Energy of Australia, I have decided to focus my policy priorities on animal agriculture. This is based on extensive research and understanding of national priorities and risks, which will be outlined below. I have also presented a list of policy actions which I will seek to undertake over my term as Minister.

Effects of livestock industry on climate change and the environment

The 2006 report Livestock’s Long Shadow by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations discusses the environmental impact associated with animal agriculture. The livestock industry is responsible for 14.5% of global anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. Despite this, there is a disparity in where climate policy focuses. Climate debate and policy, both in Australia and internationally, rarely acknowledges the role that animal agriculture plays. There is a disparate focus on the energy and transport sectors.

Globally, the livestock industry produces around 130 times more waste than the global human population. This waste can contain a host of diseases, and if water ways become contaminated, can be a serious risk for human health. If the waste reaches the ocean, it becomes a source of major environmental degradation. The Australian livestock industry also uses a disproportionate amount of water resources. In Australia, there is a substantial level of protest around the expansion of fossil fuel extraction, especially the practice of hydraulic fracturing and its impact on water. Given the high water use of industrial animal agriculture, it seems likely that protest and attention will also turn to this industry.

Effect of the livestock industry on human health and animal welfare

Not only does this industry affect wild animals and environment, it also creates an immense amount of suffering for the animals used as food. Undercover investigations have revealed excessive cruelty and suffering as standard practice, particularly in industrial Australian pig and chicken farming. Many Australians are already against animal abuse. While we mitigate the environmental issue, we can also align government policy with the ethical preferences of Australians. The proportion of people who completely eschew animal products, vegans, is also a growing population, and will become a considerable voting force in its own right.

The health impacts of a diet high in animal products are non-trivial. Notably, the World Health Organisation announced in 2015 that they have listed processed meats as a Group 1 carcinogen (carcinogenic to humans), and red meat as a Group 2A carcinogen (probably carcinogenic to humans). While processed meat does not pose as much of a risk to cancer as tobacco, studies have suggested that a diet high in plant-based food leads to lower blood pressure, a reduced risk of type 2 diabetes, and a reduced risk of mortality from cardiovascular disease. As the Australian Government, we have a duty to protect the health of Australian citizens.

Case study – Impacts of climate change on the Pacific Ocean

Global analyses show the upper Pacific Ocean warming. Sea temperatures on the Great Barrier Reef have increased by about 0.4°C over the past 100 years (Lough, 2000). The Great Barrier Reef is an important Australian landmark. It brought US$4.48 billion to Australian businesses in the 2004/2005 financial year, and resulted in the employment of 63,000 individuals (full-time equivalent). It also plays a critical role in biodiversity.

The GBR is most under threat from rising sea temperatures (resulting in more intense and more frequent coral bleaching events), and ocean acidification (reducing the ability of corals and other organisms to calcify). The 2007 IPCC report on climate change outlines the risks to the Great Barrier Reef and likely outcomes in more detail.

Policy recommendations

A multi-level policy is proposed to achieve long-term national interests. We should gradually replace the livestock industry with plant-based farming. This is a trend we expect to occur globally regardless of our involvement, and it is in Australia’s best interest to start laying the groundwork for this transformative shift early. This can be done by reducing livestock subsidies and raising a small tax on animal products, creating disincentives for consumers and producers.

We should assist farmers as they shift from livestock to more sustainable produce. The revenue from the animal product tax can be used to facilitate this support, and may come in the form of grants for land use change or subsidies and tax breaks for producing plant-based foods. Arid land in Australia typically used for grazing livestock can be used to grow other foodstuffs such as almonds and dates, or be used for carbon sequestration.

We should support the Australian food tech industry to develop plant-based and cellular agriculture alternatives to animal products. Already we are lagging behind as USA and Europe develops this technology. We should provide the industry with subsidies and research & development credits. We should host international collaborative events to facilitate technology transfer, particularly with USA and Europe, and also aim to encourage new food tech businesses and partnerships in Australia.

Australia can become a respected leader in this space whilst much of the world lags behind in action on animal agriculture. Whilst Australia’s net emissions are relatively small for the region, our greenhouse gas emissions per capita are amongst the highest in the world. One of our greatest tourist attractions, the Great Barrier Reef, is in danger and relies on a healthy Pacific Ocean.

We should promote a plant-based, whole foods diet through national public health campaigns. Whilst also reducing the public-health burden of Australia, this will have the added effect of reducing the consumption of environmentally damaging animal products. This type of public health campaign has already been demonstrated to work through anti-smoking campaigns, and may result in savings based solely on the public health burden reduction. Our current national health guidelines do not reflect the latest body of evidence on the impacts of animal products, and the healthfulness of a diet high in unprocessed plant foods, and should be urgently reviewed. Other countries, including China, are already beginning to alter their dietary guidelines to reflect the latest evidence on health and environmental impact, and Australia is, once again, lagging behind.

Australia is also well poised to supply Asia with a range of healthy, environmentally friendly and cruelty-free food. As Asia moves out of poverty and demands more luxury foods, we can provide them with high quality meat alternatives. Vegan Australia is developing a series of recommendations for moving to an animal free agricultural system in Australia, which may be beneficial in formulating our own policy.

This is a multi-disciplinary issue, and it requires multi-disciplinary action. A committee of agriculture reform should be formed to facilitate these changes. The policy recommendations outlined here fall under the portfolios of the Minister for the Environment and Energy, the Minister for Health, the Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources, the Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment, and the Minister for Industry, Innovation and Science, and thus each of these ministers’ offices should be directly involved.

Respected individuals, including Bill Nye, CEO of the Planetary Society, and Tom Hayes, CEO of Tyson Foods, are making public statements that they believe plant-based foods are the future, and they have good reason to think so. Through these policy recommendations, Australia stands to benefit financially both in the short and long term, ensure the long term sustainability of our agriculture and tourism industries, and align government policy with public values.

How to influence stuff – what didn’t work

A few months ago, I wrote a post on ‘How to influence stuff‘. My motivation for this was that I’m becoming increasingly convinced that it’s easier than people think to have influence organisations and individuals to change or do stuff differently. People assume that it’s hard and then don’t try, which becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Here I want to talk about some of the stuff I’ve tried that didn’t work, because it would be remiss of me to only talk about the stuff that did work.

What hasn’t worked

Contacting podcasts

Similar to what I said in the first post about getting websites/organisations to change stuff, I try asking podcasts to make corrections to factually incorrect statements, especially when I think it’s an important topic.

In this podcast, the host said some factually incorrect (and frankly, defamatory) things about the Good Food Institute. The most surprising to me was that the host claimed GFI was a business that could be sold to Monsanto. GFI is a charity, and can decidedly not be sold to Monsanto. I emailed the host and asked them to change this and other wrong things. They refused, and even attacked my character. Luckily, it didn’t escalate further, but this is an example of some wasted emails.

I also emailed Sam Harris after he misrepresented the field of wild-animal suffering research on his podcast (through ignorance, rather than malice, I’m sure – I’m usually a big fan of Harris’ podcast and work). I emailed him asking for a correction to be issued, but never heard back.

I’m not sure I did anything particular wrong in either of these cases, it’s just a matter of not being 100% successful. I still think you are more likely to affect change in this way than you probably think. I did have some minor success with the Skeptics Guide to the Universe when they spoke about charity and overhead. They claimed something to the effect of ‘a charity with 10% overhead is always better than one with 20% overhead’ (if you are familiar with effective altruism, you will instantly see why this is not necessarily true).

The did read my comments in full on the podcast which added nuance, however they had a minor retreat to their original position before ending the segment. I’ll still chalk that up as a win.

Op-eds and letters to the editor

I’ve written a lot of op-eds, opinion pieces and letters to the editor, mostly in Australian local and national newspapers, and am still yet to get one published. Part of me wants to chalk this up to the fact that the things I’m pitching are controversial and therefore not something the papers want to publish (e.g. “Care about X? Then go vegan.”). But part of me thinks there has to be more to it. There must be tricks.

The below are some tips that have been offered to me, mostly by Jacy Reese (who has been successful at getting op-eds etc. published on topics similar to what I write about).

  • Make sure you find the personal email address of the opinion editor, or at the least.
  • Calling them and making a personal contact is even better. Engaging with them on social media, especially Twitter, could be a good way to do this. Bonus points if you can make it relevant to something they work on.
  • If a journalist writes about something you can comment on, just try emailing them saying “Hey, I’m a source, reach out if I can be useful”.
  • Lead with your credentials, especially if they are relevant, and if you have published anything before (even online articles) lead with a mention of your best one.
  • Have your submission text in the body of the email rather than an attachment. It is more likely to get viewed, and may allay and concerns of viruses.
  • Make sure the submission is timely, especially relating to a recent major news event.

Social media

I use social media a lot – arguably too much. I sometimes use Twitter and Facebook to try and pressure organisations into changing their position, much in the same way as I use email as I mentioned in the previous post (sometimes I use both). I don’t seem to have a lot of success with this – I do better with email or phone calls. I think there is a decent chance that social media is just too easy to brush over or ignore. There might be an argument for a concentrated social media campaign involving a lot of people, but as one person you’re unlikely to do much, especially for a big organisation, unless you’re pretty famous.

Three notable examples of times I’ve tried to influence via social media are:

  • I tried to convince a BBQ day for prostate cancer (or something) that they were being super hypocritical because of the impact of processed/red meat on prostate cancer. They just gave me some stock-standard responses.
  • I got a non-vegan meal on a flight after I ordered a vegan meal, and they ended up having no vegan meals on board. I tried to a) get them to change their policy (their meals listed as ‘vegan’ were all non-vegan) and b) get a refund via social media, but got nowhere. In the end, I called them and got a $100 flight voucher (if you ever order a vegan meal and don’t get one, don’t forget to try and claim your voucher!).
  • I often leave Facebook comments on posts by Greens (an Australian political party) members, calling into attention their hypocrisy (they’re all about environment but are anti-GMO, anti-nuclear and pro-animal agriculture). The party or members have never responded, but I once called their office and said I was a past supporter of the Greens (not untrue) but was concerned that their blatant hypocrisy was harming their reputation. The staffer thanked me. As an aside, there’s something to be said for approaching such conversations as a concerned supporter rather than an angry external.

I also spend a lot of time debating people online. Mostly, this just makes me angry. A few times, I have been able to shift someones’ opinion, but most of the time, we talk past each other. I think there are definitely better things one can do with their time. I’ve even gotten a few death threats, which isn’t great. I sometimes try to salvage some of my effort by taking the good parts of my comments and turning them into blog posts.


As well as successfully contacting a bunch of famous/important people for advice or help, I’ve been unsuccessful with a bunch as well. Same goes for scholarships, entering essay/writing competitions and correcting news articles. Not much to say here – sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Volume (as well as actually trying) is the key.