Thoughts about Yew-Kwang Ng

I really enjoyed this 80,000 Hours podcast interview with Yew-Kwang Ng. His views around utilitarianism and moral realism are very similar to mine. That is – suffering and wellbeing are the only two things that can intrinsically matter, everything else is instrumentally valuable as a means to achieving wellbeing or less suffering. He also is concerned about wild-animal suffering, which is how I first heard about him several years ago.

I did disagree with his views on how we can most effectively reduce farmed animal suffering. He believes that improving welfare standards would be better in the long run than reducing the number of animals farmed by various means. The best steelman for this would be that if we could get animals in farms net positive lives, then farming more animals would be good (utilitarianly speaking).

I find this view strange in the face of Kwang’s strong concern (strong even within the space of pro-climate policy, but in line with other existential risk researchers) of the risk of human extinction due to climate change. His view is that, even if extinction risk is very small, we must act far more than we are to reduce that risk. Given that the animal agriculture industry is such a major contributor to climate change (~15-50% depending on whether you arbitrarily use a 100 or 20 year timescale), why doesn’t he advocate for solving the farmed animal suffering problem and the climate change problem with the one solution? Surely this would be more efficient than improving farmed animal welfare and then working on energy policy separately? A strange oversight (in my opinion) in an otherwise enjoyable interview.

How can we best help animals?

I was part of a panel a few months ago called ‘How can we best help animals?’ in Sydney. We talked about effective animal advocacy and had speakers from three different perspectives – Kai McBeth on local grassroots advocacy, Alex Vince on non-profits, and Emma Hurst on political change for animals.

You can watch the recording here!

Weekly election campaign update #1

If you’re not yet aware, I will be running as a candidate in the 2019 New South Wales state election in the seat of Heffron.

I’ve decided to start recording regular weekly updates to keep my supporters (you!) up to date on what I’m getting up to. This video is the first for the week of 7 – 13 January.

Follow my candidate page on Facebook here.

Announcing my candidacy for the New South Wales 2019 election

I’ve decided to run in the New South Wales state election in 2019 in the electorate of Heffron for the Animal Justice Party.

Why? Like many people, I’ve become frustrated by the lack of attention and consideration our government has traditionally given to those without a vote – the animals, the environment, young people and future generations. I want to represent these groups, and to be a force for good in parliament.

If you agree with this, and the values of the Animal Justice Party of Kindness, Equality, Rationality and Non-violence, Vote 1 AJP at the New South Wales state election in 2019, and follow me on my journey by liking my candidate page. With your help, we can make a fairer, more just world a reality.

My main areas of interest are animal welfare, climate change and evidence-based policy, but they can be summarised by this – a better world for all.

Why people are still unlikely to act after IPCC warnings on climate change

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) said last week that we have 12 years to limit climate change. I’m not a fan of such language (what does that even mean – if we cease emissions in 11 years we’ll be fine but if we do it in 13 years we all suffer?), but it’s certainly gotten a lot of attention. It has undoubtedly renewed the sense of urgency among those already concerned about climate change. Yet people don’t really seem to be doing anything different, besides getting angry at governments and companies on social media.

Just 100 companies responsible for 71% of global emissions

If you’re paying attention to the space, you likely will have seen something like this quote. I think it’s the worst thing to come out of this entire media cycle and may have actually increased emissions in expectation. Here is why:

For a short few days after the IPCC announcement, mainstream media was starting to talk about something that some of us have known for some time (ahem, the UN said it in 2006 but few cared) – one of the most impactful things you can do as an individual to limit greenhouse gas emissions is to not eat animal products (or eat less, as they worded it). Finally, this weirdly neglected topic was being taken seriously by the media and public (and who knows, maybe even governments at some point).

Then, the above quote began to circulate. This lead many people who don’t understand expected value and marginal individual impact to shift the blame entirely to these large companies, or to governments, or to capitalism. I predict this stopped a lot of people from actually taking effective action (e.g. avoiding animal products) and made them feel comfortable with just blaming others. I take serious issue with the use of the word ‘responsible’ in the quote. A more accurate word might be ‘take part in’.

Marginal impact is an important concept. It is all well and good to argue that companies and governments and the system should change, and that may well be true. However, we are individual actors, and when considering what we can do to maximise or even just increase our impact, we have to think about it in individual terms. What can I do that would have the biggest impact? One might argue that we could maximise our impact by working together, but we can just capture that under the above definition. For example: As an individual, by working with others I can maximise my impact. And the reality is – as an individual, probably the most impactful thing we can do to mitigate climate change is to just not buy animal products.

Let me pose a hypothetical. Suppose you discover that there is a product you buy which turns out to contribute to a lot of suffering. In fact, over the course of your life it turns out that purchasing this product will cause several thousand lives to suffer and be ended. Strictly speaking, the company providing these goods is ‘responsible’ (to use the above and incorrect definition of the word), but you have the choice to just buy an alternative product. In this scenario, you are equally responsible (maybe more so, since the company wouldn’t create the product without your demand). By not changing your purchasing habits, you are causing these deaths.

If you agreed with this hypothetical, then I’m afraid that in order to be logically consistent you should stop eating animal products. Thousands of animals suffer and die to feed an average person in a developed nation who eats animal products, but even if you discriminate against farmed non-humans due to their species, the environmental damage of animal agriculture remains – and I haven’t even touched on its role in global antibiotic resistance.

This is not to say that I don’t think governments and companies have a role to play as well, there are many things I’d love to see them do including government targets to reduce animal product consumption. But we can’t shirk the enormous opportunity and obligation we have to reduce suffering and environmental damage just because some other entity has a role to play.

As an additional note, if you are thinking to yourself right now I don’t eat many animal products anyway, here is something to consider. I’ve copied these tweets below because they are bloody brilliant and you need to see them (I hope Christopher will forgive me), but here is the link to the originals.

Insanity over plant-based food labeling in Australia

Here we go again…

Today, the Regional Services Minister Bridget McKenzie of the National Party willask a food regulation forum to back her bid to have Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) review terminology and crack down on imitation and so-called fake foods“. Fake foods as opposed to, what, real foods?

Laws are taking hold in France and Missouri, USA, which restrict the use of labels such as ‘meat’ and ‘milk’ to describe plant-based foods, even when they are clearly labelled as plant-based. For example, no more ‘plant-based meat’ or ‘soy milk’.

I’ve written about this before, and I’m frustrated that I need to write about it again. Apparently Australian Federal Government ministers don’t read my blog, because if they did, they’d surely see how their argument doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Let me go through a few key points in response.

[Senator McKenzie] said farmers feared their businesses were at risk because shoppers often did not realise they were buying plant-based products, rather than products from animals.

The products are very clearly labelled as plant-based. Below is a picture of the plant-based mince available in Australia that kicked up a fuss earlier in the year. For Senator McKenzie or farmers to suggest that a consumer might get confused and accidentally buy this instead of meat from an animal is an insult to their intelligence.

Senator McKenzie is also missing the point. People are buying these products not because they are confused, but because they are concerned about their health, the environment, and the suffering of innocent non-humans.

[Senator McKenzie] said as an increasing number of consumers were not eating animal products because of allergies or philosophical beliefs, “that’s their decision but we need to be careful [we] don’t confuse the marketplace and we still protect the reputation, hard earned by our clean, green farmers”.

Somewhere along the way we seem to have romanticised animal farmers – they can do no wrong. What exactly do you mean by clean and green, Senator McKenzie? Clean as in lack of disease and animal suffering? To dissuade you of this notion which I am sure you have zero risk of being biased in, please watch this recently released documentary which shows exactly how animals are being farmed in Australia.

Green, as in animal agriculture being one of the leading causes of anthropogenic global warming? This UN report is over a decade old but has gone largely unnoticed by governments and traditional environmental charities.

Federal National Party politicians have been vocal critics of plant-based protein products being labelled as mince.

This is the most ridiculous claim out of them all. The word ‘mince’ refers to the production process, not what the product is made from. To mince means ‘to cut up into very small pieces’. One can mince plants just as they can mince animal products. The fact that the National Party has been comfortable with the existence of fruit mince pies for years and have made no comment on them recently reveals their true motive.

Please sign the petition here to demand that such a law is never passed in Australia.

Would Australians starve if we stopped farming animals?

An objection to not farming non-human animals that is common in Australia is that most Australian farm animals are raised in pasture land or arid land that would otherwise not be suitable for growing crops. Therefore, if everyone in Australia was vegan, we would starve. Or something like that.

When people think of Australian farmed animals, they usually think of cattle, sheep and goats, which are more likely to be pasture raised (but not always). People rarely think about the chickens and pigs, which are much more commonly kept in factory farms and fed a diet of grain and other farmed plant food. Using the average from 1994-2016 from FAO, in Australia there are 27.4 million beef cattle, 95.3 million sheep, and 2.7 million goats. For animals mostly raised in factory farms and fed grain, there were 2.5 million pigs, 1.1 million turkeys, and 87 million chickens (although note 551 million chickens were slaughtered in 2012 – this dichotomy is due to their short lifespans). Once we examine the statistics, Australia doesn’t quite seem like the land of pasture farming anymore.

One might reasonably suppose that it is no mistake that the type of farmed animal Australians are most familiar with are cows and sheep. If Australians knew what happened in chicken/pig farms (even free range, which are usually as bad), and all slaughterhouses, they might not eat animals. The pasture raised animals are the ones we see in advertisements of struggling farmers, not the chickens stepping over the decaying bodies of their fellow species in ‘free range’ farms.

It takes many kg of plants to make 1 kg of animal flesh (often at a 7 to 1 or greater ratio). We should be able to assume that these plants could be consumed by humans as well, but even if that is not the case, if we didn’t grow whatever plant it was, we could grow crops for humans in their place. If we assume that most of the plants fed to non-humans in factory farms in Australia are sourced in Australia (I think this is reasonable), we should still have enough food to feed Australians even if we eliminated all animal farming in Australia. We wouldn’t even need to repurpose arid land to grow crops that are suited to those climates (e.g. almonds and hemp), although we may want to do this anyway.

To put this another way, we would have so much spare land for growing crops for people if we stopped farming chickens, pigs and turkeys that it would almost certainly make up for the lost ‘food’ from farming cows, sheep and goats, and then some.

Los Angeles banning fur is great, but why not leather too?

The city of Los Angeles has banned the sale of new fur products. This is a fantastic outcome – there is no justification for the harms caused to animals raised for their fur when so many perfectly fine alternatives exist. The state of California is relatively progressive on issues relating to animals (San Francisco also banned fur sales earlier in the year), but one must wonder how best to use this momentum to have fur banned in other cities in the US and globally.

I also wonder how this momentum might be used to gain traction on related issues, such as banning the sale of leather. I have always found it interesting that the wearing of fur has been so strongly disdained by the public for so long, while the wearing of leather is seen by most (besides probably just vegans) as being benign. I’m quite unsure why this is the case, both involve the killing of a non-human to turn their bodies into clothing.

The only meaningful perceived difference I can think of is that cows, the animal leather is most commonly taken from, are also exploited for their flesh and milk, while fur animals are generally not (although I doubt most people think about it this much). However, the production of leather isn’t really a by-product, according to the documentary Dominion. Leather production is an economic factor in its own right, and thus buying leather should be expected to result in more cows being farmed.

If you have celebrated the banning of the backward practice of selling animal fur as clothing, please also consider not buying animal skin for clothing. If you’re feeling really adventurous, you can even consider not engaging in the ultimate unnecessary use of animals – using their flesh and excretions for food.

Asteroids and comets as space weapons

A video version of this is available here.


Approximately 66 million years ago, a 10 km sized body struck Earth, and was likely one of the main contributors to the extinction of many species at the time. Bodies the size of 5 km or larger impact Earth on average every 20 million years (one might say we are overdue for one, but then one wouldn’t understand statistics). Asteroids 1 km or larger impact Earth every 500,000 years on average. Smaller bodies which can still do considerable local damage occur much more frequently (10 m wide bodies impact Earth on average every 10 years). It seems reasonable to say that only the first category (>~5 km) pose an existential threat, however many others pose major catastrophic threats*.

Given the likelihood of an asteroid impact (I use the word asteroid instead of asteroid and/or comet from here for sake of brevity), some argue that further improving detection and deflection technology are critical. Matheny (2007) estimates that, even if asteroid extinction events are improbable, due to the loss of future human generations if one were to occur, asteroid detection/deflection research and development could save a human life-year for $2.50 (US). Asteroid impact mitigation is not thought to be the most pressing existential threat (e.g. artificial intelligence or global pandemics), and yet it already seems to have better return on investment than the best now-centric human charities (though not non-human charities – I am largely ignoring non-humans here for simplicity and sake of argument).

The purpose of this article is to explore a depressing cautionary note in the field of asteroid impact mitigation. As we improve our ability to detect and (especially) deflect asteroids with an Earth-intersecting orbit away from Earth, we also improve our ability to deflect asteroids without an Earth-intersecting orbit in to Earth. This idea was first explored by Steven Ostro and Carl Sagan, and I will summarise their argument below.

Asteroid deflection as a DURC

A dual use research of concern (DURC) refers to research in the life sciences that, while intended for public benefit, could also be repurposed to cause public harm. One prominent example is that of disease and contagion research (can improve disease control, but can also be used to spread disease more effectively, either accidentally or maliciously). I will argue here that DURC can and should be applicable to any technology that has a potential dual use such as this.

Ostro and Sagan (1998) proposed that asteroid impacts could act as a double edged explanation for the Fermi paradox (why don’t we see any evidence of extraterrestrial civilisations?). The argument goes as follows: Those species that don’t develop asteroid deflection technology eventually go extinct due to some large impact, while those that do eventually go extinct because they accidentally or maliciously deflect a large asteroid into their planet. This has since been termed the ‘deflection dilemma‘.

The question arises: does the likelihood of a large impact increase as asteroid deflection technology is developed, rather than decrease? The most pressing existential and catastrophic threats today seem to be those that were created by technology (artificial intelligence, nuclear weapons, global health pandemics, anthropogenic global warming) rather than natural events (asteroid impacts, supervolcanoes, gamma ray bursts). Humanity has survived for millions of years (depending on how you define humanity), yet in the last 70 years have seen the advent of nuclear weapons and other technology that could meaningfully cause a catastrophic at any time. It seems possible therefore that the bigger risk will be that caused by technology, not the natural risk.

Ostro and Sagan (1994) argue that development of asteroid deflection technology is at the time of writing (and presumably today) premature, given the track record of global politics.

Who would maliciously deflect an asteroid?

Ignoring accidental deflection, which might occur when an asteroid is moved to an Earth or Lunar orbit for research or mining purposes (see this now scrapped proposal to bring a small asteroid in to Lunar orbit), there are two categories of actors that might maliciously deflect such a body; state actors and terrorist groups.

A state actor might be incentivised to authorise an asteroid strike on an enemy or potential enemy in situations where they wouldn’t necessarily authorise a nuclear strike or conventional invasion. For example, let us consider an asteroid of around 20 m in diameter. Near Earth orbit asteroids of around this size are often only detected several hours or days before passing between Earth and the Moon. If a state actor is able to identify an asteroid that will pass near Earth in secret before the global community has, they can feasibly send a mission to alter its orbit to intersect with Earth in a way such that it would not be detected until it is much too late. Assuming the state actor did its job well enough, it would be impossible for anyone to lay blame on them, let alone even guess that it might have been caused by malicious intent.

An asteroid of this size would be expected to have enough energy to cause an explosion 30 times the strength of the nuclear bomb dropped over Hiroshima in WWII.

We can temper the likelihood of this scenario by speculating that it is unlikely for some state actor to covertly discover a new asteroid and track its orbit without any other actor discovering it, considering there are transparent organisations working on tracking them. However, is it possible that a government organisation (e.g. NASA) could be ordered to not share information about a new asteroid?

What to do about this problem

Even if we don’t directly develop asteroid deflection technology, as other technologies progress (e.g. launching payloads becomes cheaper, propulsion systems become more efficient), it will become easier over time anyway. Other space weapons, such as anti-satellite weapons (direct ascent kinetic kill projectiles or directed energy weapons), space stored nuclear weapons, and kinetic bombardment (rods from god) will all become easier with general improvements in relevant technology.

The question arises – even if a small group of people were to decide that developing asteroid deflection technology causes more harm than good, what can they meaningfully do about it? The idea that developing asteroid deflection technology is good is so entrenched in popular opinion that it seems like arguing for less or no spending in the area might be a bad idea. This seems like a similar situation to where AI safety researchers find themselves. Advocating for less funding and development of AI seems relatively intractable, so they instead work on solutions to make AI safer. Another similar example is that of pandemics research – it has obvious benefits in building resilience to natural pandemics, but may also enable a malicious or accidental outbreak of an engineered pathogen.

Final thoughts

I have not considered the possibility of altering the orbit of an extinction class body (~10 km diameter or greater) in to an Earth intersecting orbit. While the damage of this would obviously be much greater, even ignoring considerations about future generations that would be lost, it would be significantly harder to alter the orbit of such a body. Also, we believe we have discovered all of the bodies of this size in a near Earth orbit (Huebner et al 2009), and so it would be much harder to do this covertly and without risking retaliation (e.g. mutually assured destruction via nuclear weapons). The possibility of altering the orbit of such bodies should still be considered, as it poses an existential/catastrophic risk while smaller bodies do not.

I have also chosen to largely not focus on other types of space weapons (see this book for an overview of space weapons generally) for similar reasons – the potential for dual-use is less clear, thus in theory making it harder to set up such technologies in space. It would also be more difficult to make the utilisation of such weapons look like an accident.

Future work

A cost benefit analysis that examines the pros and cons of developing asteroid deflection technology in a rigorous and numerical way should be a high priority. Such an analysis would consider the expected value of damage of natural asteroid impacts in comparison with the increased risk from developing technology (and possibly examine the opportunity cost of what could otherwise be done with the R&D funding). An example of such an analysis exists in the space of global health pandemics research, which would be a good starting point. I believe it is unclear at this time whether the benefits outweigh the risks, or vice versa (though at this time I lean towards the risks outweighing the benefits – an unfortunate conclusion for a PhD candidate researching asteroid exploration and deflection to come to).

Research regarding the technical feasibility of deflecting an asteroid into a specific target (e.g. a city) should be examined, however this analysis comes with drawbacks (see section on information hazards).

We should also consider policy and international cooperation solutions that can be set in place today to reduce the likelihood of accidental and malicious asteroid deflection occurring.

Information hazard disclaimer

An information hazard is “a risk that arises from the dissemination or the potential dissemination of (true) information that may cause harm or enable some agent to cause harm.” Much of the research in to the risk side of DURCs could be considered an information hazard. For example, a paper that demonstrates how easy it might be to engineer and release an advanced pathogen with the intent of raising concern could make it easier for someone to do just that. It even seems plausible that publishing such a paper could cause more harm than good. Similar research into asteroids as a DURC would have the same issue (indeed, this post itself could be an information hazard).

* An ‘existential threat’ typically refers to an event that could kill either all human life, or all life in general. A ‘catastrophic threat’ refers to an event that would cause substantial damage and suffering, but wouldn’t be expected to kill all human life, which would eventually rebuild.

Why I support the Australian Animal Justice Party and why you should too

Ever since I got interested in politics, I had always been hesitant to align myself with a given party. My rationale was mainly that I like to update my beliefs based on evidence and rational thought, and I worried that if I became a member of a party, I would become biased. Even if I wasn’t biased, there would be an external perception that I was, and it might be harder encourage others to vote for what I thought was the best party.

Also, it would be fair to say that I don’t agree with any Australian party on all of their policies and priorities. Of course, there are some that I agree with more, but I like to vote in elections based on the current landscape, not a pre-committed allegiance.

Voting for the best party is important – more so than many might first assume. I’ve written about this before. To recap:

People often say that you’re unlikely to have any impact when voting, or that the impact of your vote is so small that it’s not worth thinking about, but this is only true if you only care about yourself. In Doing Good Better, Will MacAskill simplistically estimates that the expected value of voting for a US citizen, when spread out across all citizens in USA, is around $5,200 USD (~$7,000 AUD at the time of writing [and I believe the value for an Australian voter is quite similar]). That is to say, on average, $5,200 of the budget will be spent differently as a result of your vote (see the appendix for a more detailed explanation of why this is so). This means it’s very important to vote for the party that will spend the budget in the best way possible.

The impact of your vote on you personally, however, is worth significantly less than $1. So unless you think you’re really, really important, you should probably vote for the best party for others in general.

While many in the effective altruism and effective animal advocacy space are quite comfortable to say they believe a particular charity, intervention or career path is effective at reducing suffering and why, few are comfortable talking about why they think a given political party is effective at reducing suffering (relatively speaking), and I think that’s a shame. We need to change the culture of talking about politics to one that is truth-seeking and open to changing minds.

Part of it may be the perception of bias, and I want to talk about this. After years of consideration, I currently think that the Animal Justice Party is the party that I expect to most reduce suffering if they are successful (e.g. get more votes, funding, seats etc.). As a result, I went to AJP events, I eventually became a member, and now I am considering becoming significantly more involved with the party in to the future. My involvement follows my research. It is not the case, at least now, that I would support or promote the AJP because I am a member.

People often assume that one’s motivation is biased if they promote X, but the rationale can come from the other direction. People can believe the evidence and therefore act on it, and political parties are no exception. We should be wary of someone who says the party they support is the best party because [insert evidence], but not outright distrustful.

With that preamble, I want to talk a little about why I am a supporter of the AJP, and why I think you should be too (before the perception of my bias becomes even stronger, if it’s not too late). In fact, I think you should be a supporter of the AJP even if you aren’t vegan, for similar reasons that I put forth in my post about why you should support animal charities even if you aren’t vegan.

What do I mean by supporter? I mostly mean signing up as a member ($30 AU per year*), and voting for them, but could also include other stuff. Of course, this doesn’t mean you are committing to support them for life. For a while this was a major source of reservation for me in not becoming a member. But I reserve the right to part ways with the party if I disagree with them or think supporting another party would be more effective. But I think that if you are more confident than not that a party is ‘best’, you should support it until you think otherwise.

The first political party I felt strongly about was the Greens, due to my concerns about human rights and the environment. However, I worry that the Greens don’t go anywhere near far enough for non-humans, and hold, in my view, anti-science policies around energy (e.g. they are strongly opposed to nuclear energy, and make little to no reference of the environmental harms of the livestock industry). They are ‘pretty good’, but I am confident that AJP largely addresses these concerns and then some.

One thing I find partly but not completely surprising is that many vegans, vegetarians, and others concerned largely with animal suffering, don’t vote for or support the AJP. Perhaps they think AJP doesn’t go far enough still, or that there are other important issues. But to this, I say that AJP arguably goes the furthest thus far, and that you may as well vote first preference for AJP, and second preference for the presumably larger party you believe is better informed about other issues.

So, dear reader, if you trust my judgement and impartiality (and if not at least consider and look in to it), you should sign on as an AJP member and vote for them at the state and federal level unless some valid information changes your mind. As an AJP member you will have a stronger say over their priorities, as well as increasing the strength of their influence on Australian politics. In the words of AJP themselves:

Every additional member means added strength, funds and political capital for the AJP to pursue its animal protection agenda. Your membership sends a message to the other parties that animal protection is a political force to be reckoned with – one that our members are prepared to put their vote behind.

If you want to look at some of my thinking on different parties, you can see this analysis I did with Hugo Burgin on 6 parties at the time of the last federal election in 2016, though note that it is somewhat out of date and my views have shifted somewhat.

Finally, a quick reminder that voting for a party that is relatively unlikely to gain a seat in Australia is not a wasted vote, captured perfectly by this comic.

* Even if you donate all or much of your disposable income to effective charities, as I know some of my friends and readers do, I still think this is a highly impactful use of your marginal $30.