A few weeks ago I joined Michael Barticel on his podcast The Good People Effect to chat about charity, asteroids, and everything in between. You can now listen in here!
Yesterday I interviewed Dr Melanie Joy on the psychology of eating meat for LiveKindly. Jodi was kind enough to allow me to display the video on my website as well, so here it is and I hope you enjoy. Please also consider checking out LiveKindly, it’s a great resource and read for vegans and non-vegans alike.
I’m grateful to have been shortlisted for the 2017 APRU New York Times competition titled ‘The future of the Pacific Ocean’. Unfortunately, as I wasn’t placed in the top 3 my essay won’t be published, so I’m hoping it will get some use here. You can see the winners here.
The essay was pitched as a policy brief to key Australian ministers on the risks of climate change to Australia (specifically relating to the Pacific Ocean) and the role of the food industry as a solution. I focus primarily on a actionable solutions relating to a transition from an animal-based industry to a plant-based industry.
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.
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 rarely acknowledges the role that animal agriculture plays.
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.
Not only does this industry affect wild animals and environment, it also creates an immense amount of suffering for the animals used as food. Many Australians are already against animal abuse. While we tackle the environmental issue, we can also align government policy with the ethical preferences of Australians.
A multi-level policy is recommended. We should gradually replace the livestock industry with plant-based farming. 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.
We should promote a plant-based, whole foods diet. 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.
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.
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.
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.
I’m genuinely shocked that The Conversation allowed this article, titled ‘Arguments why God (very probably) does exist’ to be published. This isn’t science-based journalism. I’m still harbouring some hope that it was satire.
Before reading my comments, you should read it yourself, as I speak directly to the points made. In short, the author seeks to outline some arguments from logic for why God probably exists. The author presents an inexplicable misunderstanding of most. The article also seems to be a thinly veiled promotion of the authors’ book:
“In my 2015 book, “God? Very Probably: Five Rational Ways to Think about the Question of a God,” I look at physics, the philosophy of human consciousness, evolutionary biology, mathematics, the history of religion and theology to explore whether such a god exists.”
Disclaimer – I am a Conversation published author. I feel compelled to write this because this article harms the credibility of the site, and thus all other authors.
On to my comments.
The author pointed out a few people that have doubts over evolution, but failed to acknowledge the reams of evidence in its support. They may as well be denying the existence of climate change.
The second to last point can be easily explained by confirmation bias (you don’t remark on the almost- or non-coincidences, only the ones that actually occur), and the last is not a reason to believe the existence of a god at all. It is possibly a reason to believe that humans have a hunger to be a part of something greater than themselves, whether it’s spiritual or otherwise.
That the universe seems strange and unlikely in many respects can be explained by the anthropic principle. If the universe didn’t quite have the right characteristics for life to exist, we wouldn’t be here to think about it, so it’s not that surprising that we observe the universe to look this way. It’s like saying, ‘wow, I exist, how unlikely’. If you didn’t exist, you wouldn’t be able to ponder that thought. It’s quite staggering that the author didn’t mention this.
Consciousness is weird and hard, but it is not therefore divine.
I enjoyed Michael Plant’s article in The Conversation today, ‘Which party’s manifesto promises would make Britain happiest?‘ Plant attempts an evidence-based approach to choosing which party to vote for by reading their manifestos. Despite it being basic and limited, I’m very glad it exists, and I think there should be more attempts to select an objectively best party to vote for.
Call me a radical, but I think people should vote for the party that will do the most to increase happiness. If a party’s policies won’t reduce misery and help people have more pleasant, fulfilling lives, what are they good for?
You may recall that myself and Hugo Burgin attempted a similar analysis in 2016 for the Australian Federal election. As we said then, “We say ‘attempted’ because such analyses are incredibly complex (which is possibly why none exist), although we believe that some attempt at picking the best party is better than no attempt.”
Voting correctly is a lot more important than people often think it is. Again, in 2016 Burgin and I said:
“People often say that you’re unlikely to have any impact when voting, or that the impact of your vote is so small that it’s not worth thinking about, but this is only true if you only care about yourself. In Doing Good Better, Will MacAskill simplistically estimates that the expected value of voting for a US citizen, when spread out across all citizens in USA, is around $5,200 USD (~$7,000 AUD at the time of writing). That is to say, on average, $5,200 of the budget will be spent differently as a result of your vote (see the appendix for a more detailed explanation of why this is so). This means it’s very important to vote for the party that will spend the budget in the best way possible.”
I do have some concerns around Plant’s analysis. I want to stress first that I’m not necessarily criticising Plant for this. He was (presumably) operating alone, with limited time and resources, and also had a limited number of words on the article to play with. I’m just outlining what I would want in an ideal analysis. Having said that, my concerns are as follows.
Plant doesn’t account for non-human animals (edit – he did mention them briefly, I just missed it), which is a major gap, though he does try to account for non-British citizens. He also doesn’t seem to look at the future or far future. Needless to say, far future effects (e.g. 1,000 years plus) are extremely difficult to predict, so again, this is not a criticism of Plant. He relies on manifestos and promises, which won’t necessarily be kept. An ideal analysis would look at history and likelihood of individual parties meeting their promises.
One reservation around these types of analyses in general is that people might use them to come out with the answer they want, whether consciously or subconsciously, although there are ways around this with sufficient oversight.
My ideal outcome looks something like this: A group of benevolent individuals grants an organisation funding say 1 year prior to an election. This organisation can’t be a non-profit in many countries (e.g. Australia), because they are not legally able to support any one political party. This organisation then produces and releases the report shortly before the election. The majority of the population, being motivated by maximising wellbeing of all sentience over the course of the universe (I wish), votes accordingly.
There is a very real question as to how many people would trust such an analysis. There will probably be some people who will never change the party they support out of sheer mistrust that it didn’t pick their party. The trust may have to be built up slowly over several elections and with strong, impartial oversight. I have no idea how to do this, but I do think it is important and worth dedicating time and money to. People have $5,200 worth of impact every time they vote, and we surely want to see that impact being positive.
As you may have been aware, the Reducetarian Summit was on in New York city last weekend. I went because I was on the fence about whether the ‘reducetarian approach’ to animal advocacy was a good idea (I’ve written about that here), and I wanted to learn more. It was also a pretty great networking opportunity, and it is always nice to meet in person people you have been engaging with online for years.
I also had the pleasure of interviewing Tobias Leenaert, the Vegan Strategist, for my podcast, which you can find here. We talked about the pros and cons of a reducetarian approach. Tobias advocates for an ‘adaptive’ approach, which I like. It involves being flexible and using whichever approach works best for a given situation*. You can also find criticism of this discussion here.
Overall, the talks were mostly on par with what you might expect to see at a conventional animal advocacy conference. There were talks on the impacts of animal agriculture on animals, global health and the environment, as well as on cellular agriculture/plant-based meat alternatives and political lobbying. The main difference with a conventional conference was there a relative lack of discussion about animal rights.
Interestingly, it seemed like most people at the conference were vegan, which surprised me. I had figured that the conference might mostly appeal to people wanting to reduce but not eliminate their animal product consumption, but it seems to have been mostly people with the same mindset as me. They either wanted to learn about the approach, or wanted to improve their advocacy and network.
There weren’t really talks on the pros and cons of a reducetarian approach as I was expecting, so I can’t say I changed my opinion much. I slightly updated towards thinking that reducetarian advocacy could be good in some situations, but as I mentioned previously, I still hold reservations about the way it is currently being done by some people.
The conference was protested by about half a dozen individuals, lead by Harrison Nathan, who has been a critic of various aspects of effective altruism in an animal advocacy context. They stood out the front on the first day with signs, and I went to speak with them. Nathan and I have engaged online about his disagreement with the reducetarian approach, and I share many of the same reservations. I am glad to see that Nathan’s objections come from believing that reducetarian advocacy is ineffective, rather than the more deontologist belief that advocating for anything less than total veganism is always wrong.
I had advised against a protest for fear of it harming the reputation of vegans and reinforcing stereotypes, but I stand pleasantly corrected (as far as I can tell). The protest was very calm and reasonable, and for getting across their views, it seemed successful**.
One recurring theme of the panel talks was a general positivity towards organic food, and a general disdain towards GMO food. This frustrates me. I won’t delve in to the science now, except to say that there is no evidence, health or environmental, saying that we should preference organic or non-GMO food. In fact, GMO food can be designed to have higher food yields, be more nutritious, and more disease resistant. As my friend Michael Selden eloquently put it, “I’m an environmentalist so I’m pro GMO. It’s that simple.” The same Michael Selden (who runs a cellular agriculture fish company) was in a panel on cellular agriculture and spoke positively of GMOs, to my joy. It was a much needed voice in the dark at the conference.
Many people are pro-organic food because they are worried about pesticides, and think that organic food doesn’t have pesticides. This is false – organic food uses organic pesticides, which are not necessarily better and can be worse than synthetic pesticides. For example, copper counts as an organic pesticide. Also, while some pesticides can be harmful, they are probably on average less harmful than you think, and they do provide benefits to food yield etc. Without pesticides, we would need a lot more land and resources to produce the same amount of food. If anything, people should advocate for better and safer use of pesticides than for no use of pesticides.
I also just want to share an exchange I had at the conference which I found quite interesting. I was with a few friends who were all involved with the effective altruism movement, and we were chatting with one woman who had never heard of it before. After explaining the basic concepts, she said, ‘Oh that sounds great, but I’m not earning a lot of money, and I can’t donate much to charity, is there still a place in effective altruism for people like me.
The idea that effective altruism is all about money and donations is an old criticism, but it still comes up from time to time (not that it was necessarily a criticism in this case). But the point is just that taking a high paying job and donating a lot of money to effective charities is just one effective way to do a lot of good that people often overlook, not that it’s the only way. Depending on your situation (interests, skills, network and experience), it might be more or less effective than other things you could do. For example, you could do effective advocacy or research work.
I just found this exchange a good reminder to make sure the message is clear, because I really believe in effective altruism and don’t want people to get the wrong impression of it.
Below are some photos from the conference, including some of my favourite graphs and figures from presentations.
* A valid point was raised to me about saying that ‘it depends’. This could be harmful because it stymies discussion. We can say that it depends and is probably different for different situations, but when it comes down to something like actually putting a message on a leaflet, we need to know what to do.
** Again, a valid point was brought to my attention after writing this. I spoke with the protesters, but most people attending the conference didn’t. Their perception of vegans in general may still have been harmed by the existence/presence of the protest, as they didn’t have the chance to speak with them and hear their arguments or motivation.
Tobias Leenaert is one of the founders of Ethical Vegetarian Alternative, or EVA, which is a Belgian organisation that advocates the consumption of plant foods instead of animals.
Tobias founded the Center for Effective Vegan Advocacy, CEVA, with Melanie Joy, who you might know as the author of Why we Love Dogs, Eat Pigs and Wear Cows. CEVA aims to increase the impact of vegan advocacy worldwide.
I first heard about Tobias through his work on the Vegan Strategist, a blog where he talks about effect animal advocacy. He is also working on a book on vegan strategy and communication, and gives talks around the world.
Tobias and I chatted about the effectiveness and role for different types of animal advocacy.
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If the new WHO Director General takes a strong stance on factory farming, that would be a positive for human and non-human animals in so many ways. Congratulations to Scott and Sophie for what I’m sure will be a highly impactful initiative. I’d also just like to take this moment to remind you how easy it can be to influence things, including high profile individuals and organisations (I’ve written about this here). You can and must take action.
I’m on my way to the US east coast for the Reducetarian Summit and picked up the latest issue of New Philosopher, with the theme of the future. I often find New Philosopher a little weak, but this issue is good, especially the interview with Nick Bostrom on the future of humanity. Some of my favourite insights:
Bostrom said that naming their organisation the ‘Future of Humanity Institute’ turned out to be very useful because of how broad it is. It allows them to easily shift their priorities based on what they think is the best thing to work on to improve the world.
Too often I see organisations with some name that locks them in to a particular view, especially non-profits (e.g. the Anti-Nuclear Alliance of Western Australia – I’ve whinged about this before).
I also liked the concept of the ‘world vulnerability thesis’, which Bostrom stressed is not an idea in its final stage. The idea is that, as technology advances, we may reach a point where a small group is able to do something that destroys humanity or the world (or causes catastrophic damage, presumably).
We could, at some point, enter a ‘vulnerability window’ where it is easier to cause major damage than to protect against it, which might either be temporary or lasting. An example of this would be the use of biotechnology to spread an engineered pathogen around the world.
On Friday I had the pleasure of joining some Los Angeles activists in a Cube of Truth at Hollywood, on the walk of fame. I’ve participated in similar outreach events in Sydney, Australia, and was somewhat surprised to note that the responses at each location were quite similar. If you’re not familiar with a Cube of Truth, the video below has some footage from one in Sydney. Essentially, we show people footage of animal farming, and talk to them about it.
I spoke to half a dozen vegetarians (a pretty high proportion of those I spoke to, maybe 30%?) who had no idea about the treatment of animals in the dairy and egg industries. Some people saw the footage and just couldn’t believe that it was happening in their own country.
Of course, we capped off the night with some delicious vegan food at Doomies. Do check it out if you haven’t been yet!
I’m travelling to DC, Philadelphia and New York from 12-22 May, so do hit me up if you’re around. From 20-21 May I’ll be attending the Reducetarian Summit in New York, where I’ll be interviewing my next podcast guest, Tobias Leenaert, also known as the Vegan Strategist. If you’re in New York and are interested in animal advocacy, I recommend you check it out.
In case you haven’t heard about the reducetarian approach, it’s the argument that encouraging people to reduce their meat or animal product consumption might be more effective at reducing animal suffering, at least in the short term, than encouraging people to go vegan.
I’m relatively on the fence about this. I’m a utilitarian so am totally open to altering the message to something not completely vegan if indeed (we believe) it will most reduce suffering over the course of the universe. However, I still have reservations about the reducetarian approach, and am not necessarily convinced that it is the best choice.
Despite that, I still do think that even people who don’t support the reducetarian approach should come to this conference and be a part of the conversation.