Most people don’t support all minority groups

I’ve now made a video version of this, which is available here.

When it comes to persecuted and minority groups, the vast majority of the population only supports a subset of these groups, and this bothers me. Here’s why.

Take for example a historically persecuted group, such as LGBTs, people of colour, and women (not an exhaustive list to be sure). Thankfully, many today are happy to accept that people should not be discriminated against for no reason other than simply having other sexual preferences or skin colour or gender.

But for the overwhelming majority, this concern seems to stop at the edge of the human species. Non-human animals are, today, significantly more persecuted than any human group. This is not to try to diminish other persecuted groups, but it’s a simple numbers game. Around 70 billion land animals are killed for their flesh each year.

And yet, if you tell someone that they should care about non-human animals because they care about LGBTs, people of colour and women, they so often laugh and say that animals are ‘just different’. This is the exact same excuse some humans make for not caring about LGBTs, people of colour and women. They’re ‘just different’. Since when is that an excuse to not care about a sentient being?

It’s not a case of intelligence either. Animals may be less intelligent than humans on average, but some humans are less intelligent than others. And yet those interested in equality claim that intelligence should not matter in the way we treat humans. So it’s not a case of animals being less intelligent than humans. It’s really just a case of ‘they’re different’. Using that in any other context in today’s world would be insane. How is it ok to use this excuse for animals? Can you imagine someone saying ‘I just like the way they taste’ about any other minority group?

If you’re vegan and are nodding sagely along to this, I’m sorry to say that (statistically speaking at least), you’re not off the hook. Most vegans I know who are rightly upset by the shocking cruelty inflicted upon animals don’t seem to think it’s a problem that animals in the wild also experience unimaginable pain. Consider for a moment what it would feel like to have fallen down a ravine and nearly die of starvation only to be slowly eaten by insects before you die. Wild animals suffer and we need to think seriously about this.

Even insects are ignored by many vegans. I once asked a vegan I knew whether she cared about insects, and I paraphrase, ‘Ew, no. They’re insects. They’re disgusting.’

If you’ve still agreed with everything I’ve said so far, I’m afraid you’re still not there yet. While I don’t understand all of the science behind it, there is a possibility that computers may one day be sentient, or even that programs today are already weakly sentient. I am not so overconfident as to say with 100% certainty that all computers today are able to feel pain on some rudimentary level, even though I think it is highly unlikely.

We’re not done. Even fundamental physics itself might be capable of experiencing something like suffering.

Who knows what next level there might be to this chain of unconsidered groups. In 200 years, what things that even the most ethical of our society do will be considered abhorrent?

It seems like the only logical way to think about this then, is to think about life in terms of sentience and capability of experiencing pain and pleasure, whether it’s biological or digital. A speck of dust doesn’t matter because it’s not sentient. Insects matter because they are likely sentient. A rock doesn’t matter. A computer program might.

If you accept that LGBTs, people of colour, women and all the other human minority groups shouldn’t be persecuted simply because ‘they’re different’, I invite you to expand your circle of moral consideration all the way.

These kinds of posts oblige me to write a certain disclaimer. I am in no way seeking to undermine the plight of other persecuted groups when I talk about animals or anything else capable of experience suffering, although I don’t think this does that anyway.

All suffering is bad. Let’s minimise suffering no matter what form it takes.

Donation pledge update

As of the 31st of August, 2016, I have pledged to donate all of my income each year over $45,000 Australian for the rest of my life to what I believe is the most effective charity/cause. That’s the short version, but I’d like to say a few more things.

Why are you making this public?

I recently heard a quote (and sadly I can’t remember where so I can’t give due credit – edit: found it) that it’s more selfish to donate and not tell anyone than to donate and tell everyone. By telling people you donate, you encourage giving norms, which encourages other people to donate. Imagine if, over the course of my life, I encourage just 1 other person to do the same. I’ll have doubled my impact.

Also, there is the very real possibility that, if I kept this as a pledge internally, or didn’t pledge at all, my values will drift over my life, and eventually I’ll stop caring to donate.

I keep a very transparent list of my donations here, and encourage others to do the same.

That’s a lot of money! Aren’t you worried?

Not really. As I’ll discuss below I think this would make me much happier than spending the money on myself. Plus $45,000 probably gets you further than you think once you take out excessive holidays, fancy houses, cars, clothes, restaurants, movies etc. And on an income of $45,000, I’d still be in the richest 1.3% of the planet.

Anyway, about $4,000 saves a life at the Against Malaria Foundation, 60 cents reduces one year of animal suffering if donated to an Animal Charity Evaluators recommended charity, and a donation to an existential risk organisation like the Future of Humanity Institute has a meaningful chance at reducing the risk of human extinction. It’s pretty hard to spend too much money on myself once I realised that.

Where do you think that money will go?

I think the answer to this question will change very often, so I won’t answer it in full here. At least in the near future it will probably just go to whichever charity I think is the most effective at reducing the suffering and maximising the pleasure experienced by conscious minds (including non-human animals, insects, and even AI if it turns out to be sentient). In the future I might decide that, say, political lobbying is more effective, so I remain open-minded.

What’s the catch?

Well, if the cost of living dramatically increases, I probably won’t make large sacrifices to maintain the pledge. There are practical and selfish reasons for doing this. The practical reasons are that, sometimes you have to spend money to make (and donate) money. If I were going for a job interview and thought I’d need a suit to land the job but I was about to go over, I’d probably buy the suit.

Also, there’s the risk of burnout. I don’t feel like I’m in any danger of burning out because I’m so motivated to make a difference, but a lot of smart people have told me that living a certain way is difficult to maintain. Donating a medium amount over a life is certainly better than donating everything for 3 years then giving up.

My current living costs are about $20,000 per year, so I really don’t see this happening any time soon. Plus I’m going to allow the cap to grow with inflation.

Wait, $20,000 a year? So you plan to blow $25,000 on yourself each year?

Not quite. I still donate as much as I can, the $25,000 is just to allow for changing circumstances.

Should I do the same?

Maybe. I guess you should ask yourself what you want in life. If it’s to make a positive difference, this is probably one of the best ways of doing so. If it’s for yourself to be happy, I’d actually argue you should still make a pledge. Anecdotally, I am much more happy after I first made a smaller pledge last year, and I feel no regret or worry about doing this today. I feel like I’m making a real difference, and that feels good.

Also, someone earning $100,000 a year is only marginally more satisfied than someone earning $50,000 a year. An individual earning $100,000 but giving half would arguably be quite a bit happier than someone who just earned $50,000 a year too. At about $40,000, other factors, such as health, relationships and a sense of purpose contribute more to happiness than income.

Have you ever felt like you have to work harder so you can buy more ‘stuff’? This is a concept called the ‘hedonic treadmill’. You can keep buying stuff and not really increase your happiness.

As I say, it did take me 18 months between hearing about such pledges and making this one. I would definitely encourage making a smaller pledge (Giving What We Can have suggested 1% for the first year), and increasing that if (or when) you’re convinced it’s manageable/makes you happier.

Any tips for saving money?

Totally. Toast sandwiches are delicious and are one of the cheapest meals per calorie (don’t use dairy butter though folks).

But seriously, Mr. Money Mustache is a great blog on reducing your spending in creative ways and investing wisely.

Budget yourself, and just don’t spend money on crap you don’t need.

I still think you’re kind of weird

Perhaps, but I think it’s a good weird. Plus, more and more people are doing this!

Interview with vegan publishers John Yunker and Midge Raymond

John and Midge are authors and co-founders of the publishing house Ashland Creek Press, which is dedicated to animal and environmental literature.

How and why did you become vegan?

It was a journey that predates Ashland Creek Press. We both took different journeys but arrived at the same destination. And the more we learned about animals and how they are treated, the more this affected every aspect of our lives, including our writing. Ashland Creek Press grew out of desire to see more works of literature that address animal rights issues.

How did you come to writing and publishing?

Midge: We both have journalism backgrounds, and we both worked in publishing in New York. This is when I first began writing fiction. After publishing a number of short stories, my first collection, Forgetting English, was published in 2009, and my novel, My Last Continent, was published this year by Text Publishing. Ashland Creek Press was born thanks to John’s novel, The Tourist Trail, which we published in 2010 after his agent couldn’t find a home for it. This experience made us realize that there is a lot of environmentally themed literature that isn’t finding its way into the world, so we decided to start a boutique press with that focus.

John: While Midge has a strong background in editing, my expertise is more in web, production, and marketing. After publishing The Tourist Trail, we began accepting submissions for Ashland Creek Press and were amazed by the high quality of work we received, which told us that there was definitely a need for an environmental press. We’re now in our fifth year and have published more than twenty books.

What would you suggest for an author looking to write or promote a book about animal ethics? For one, I imagine it’s difficult to write a popular and successful book about animals ethics when so few people take animal suffering seriously.

First, we’d encourage the author to keep us in mind! Second, we’d encourage any writer passionate about these issues to not give up. In many ways, writers who tackle these issues are ahead of their time — but our time will come eventually.

Regarding the writing itself, it’s important that writers understand their audience and what they’re trying to achieve with their work. Some writers are successful in writing for fellow vegans, and their work reflects this. But to write a novel that will appeal across the full spectrum of readers, one must be careful not to be heavy handed in style and voice. You want readers to share your journey, and you must always keep in mind that those who are not vegans might not take the same path that you took. The goal is to open hearts and minds toward these issues by asking important questions in a way that respects where every reader is coming from.

What skills would you suggest are most valuable to learn early for starting and running a great business?

Start small and keep overhead low. We didn’t “give up the day jobs” when starting this press, and we still have other work to help make ends meet. And this gives us the financial freedom take chances on books that fall outside of the mainstream.

Also, a lot of people view publishing as an easy business to run because of the rise of self-publishing models and eBooks. But there are more than 200,000 books published every year, which makes book marketing a constant and never-ending challenge. In other words, we would not recommend that people get into publishing to make money but rather to pursue their passions. It’s definitely a labor of love.

What is it about fiction that allows a message to be communicated better than non-fiction?

Non-fiction speaks to the brain; fiction speaks to the heart. And while we find that non-fiction books have a huge impact on awareness and action (we also publish non-fiction, such as Dogland), we have special affinity for fiction. We’re readers and writers of fiction ourselves and are continually frustrated by the lack of novels that see the world the way we see the world.

What is your biggest insight on encouraging regard for animals, either in print or in person?

Empathy is the key. Most people have empathy for their family pets, and they may not realize, for example, that pigs are as intelligent as their dogs. The challenge is helping them expand their love for such pets as cats and dogs to animals that have largely been overlooked. One strategy is by giving an animal point of view in a story — not an easy feat but, done well, can be quite successful, as it was with the cockatoo Caruso in Gwyn Hyman Rubio’s Love and Ordinary Creatures. Other ways we can find empathy for animals in fiction is by authors creating unforgettable animal characters that live among humans, such as Jata in Mindy Mejia’s The Dragon Keeper. And both editions of Among Animals feature animals from dogs and cats to emus and cockroaches, all of which challenge us to view these creatures in a new light.

What one movie, piece of literature or other medium has most shifted your views?

John: It’s hard to pick just one. Some of the more influential books in my life include Moby-Dick by Herman Melville, Elizabeth Costello by J.M. Coetzee, The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. Le Guin, The Crossing by Cormac McCarthy, and the story A Report to An Academy by Franz Kafka. When it comes to television, the British mini-series Edge of Darkness continues to inspire me.

Midge: I am a big fan of environmental novels like Ann Pancake’s Strange As This Weather Has Been and Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior. Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves beautifully touches on important animal-rights issues. I also think film is a wonderful medium for the animal rights, especially as there are so many good films that tackle the subject from different angles, from Forks Over Knives to Earthlings to Cowspiracy.

What is one thing that you believe which almost no one else does?

We have long made the point that often widely acclaimed “environmental literature” isn’t truly environmental in that nature is exploited rather than respected. We are working hard to promote a “new environmental literature” that doesn’t glorify hunting, fishing, or any form of extraction from nature. We’ve founded the Siskiyou Prize for New Environmental Literature ( specifically to highlight these works. We believe we’re due for a revolution in environmental literature.

What’s next for you?

For ACP, we’ve just published the second volume of Among Animals, an anthology of short stories that explore human-animal relationships.

We also just launched the third annual Siskiyou Prize for New Environmental Literature.

Next year we will be publishing the novel The Crows of Beara, about Ireland, nature versus industry, and the power of landscape. We’ve also just signed a non-fiction book about wild bears of Europe. Most people aren’t aware that there are bears there, and this book sheds light on the struggles that they face, as well as the people who advocate on their behalf.

And we’re also both writing new novels.

Thanks for sharing your time! If you want more information about Ashland Creek Press, check out their website.

I’m hoping for interviews with interesting people doing interesting things will become a regular segment. If you enjoyed this and want to hear more stories, make sure to subscribe. And if you have any interesting stories/experiences/wins you’d like to share, please do get in touch so I can interview you!

When did milk become an ethical dilemma?

If you’ve been paying attention to the news lately you’d know that there has been an uproar over dairy prices in Australia which are at record lows. People are out in droves buying milk and supporting our local farmers, and 891 ABC radio recently asked how milk became an ethical issue. And even more recently, Senator Nick Xenophon has proposed that the government pay to implement a free milk program for school kids.

It always has been an ethical issue, but not for the reasons that you think. I’d like to talk about the hidden victims of the dairy industry; the cows. It’s obvious, but people forget that, for a cow to produce milk, like any mammal, they have to be currently or recently pregnant. As a result, in order to produce the milk, they are often artificially inseminated, which is the most efficient way to get cows pregnant. It’s akin to rape, and animals are literally placed on ‘rape-racks’ to facilitate this process. Once the calves are born, they will want to drink that delicious milk, which of course is ours, so we take the calf away and either grow it for meat or have it killed. Once the dairy cow is too old to produce milk, they are slaughtered, usually for their flesh.

It’s not for any good reason either. Despite myths stating otherwise, milk from other species is quite harmful for humans, and leads to increased rates of osteoarthritis, and so Xenophon’s proposal is irresponsible and simply dangerous. Most humans are against exploiting animals for enjoyment, but somehow food animals are in a category of their own.

How did we get caught up in this hysteria around milk while forgetting the real victims of the situation? Luckily, there are at least a few who realise the insanity of the situation.

If you already recognise the horrors of the dairy industry, make your voice heard lest we start feeding our kids the product of torture, rape and suffering (I mean, what kind of lesson is that?). I might suggest writing your local politician, or write a letter to the editor in a newspaper. If this is totally news to you, I’d advise you to do some research.

Adapted from a submission to the Adelaide news publication The Advertiser.

From utilitarian to abolitionist and back in a month

I’ve made a video version of this article and have expanded on some of the points here.

I’m a utilitarian through and through, so it might be a surprise to you to know that I called myself an abolitionist for about a month. But I’ve stopped, and I think my thought process is potentially quite useful. Regardless of your current position regarding animal activism, I ask you to read this.

If you’re not familiar with the abolitionist (or rights) approach to animals (and its opposite, welfarism), I’ll briefly sum it up here. Welfarism is about focusing on trying to minimise suffering felt by animals. Some welfarists advocate for strategies such as welfare reforms in factory farming, like changing the way animals are slaughtered. They might also advocate for people reducing their meat consumption. Essentially, it’s a utilitarian point of view, or close to.

Abolitionism rejects this approach, and wants to abolish the property status of animals. For example, an abolitionist would say that anything less than advocating for full veganism (e.g. saying vegetarianism is ‘ok’ or ‘good’) is wrong, and anything less than advocating for full abolition of animal use (e.g. by advocating for welfare reform) is also wrong. The abolitionist movement is lead by Gary L. Francione, Rutgers University law and philosophy scholar/professor.

The story

I had loosely heard of the abolitionist point of view and had dismissed it on utilitarian grounds. I was already vegan and opposed animal experimentation for a number of reasons, but I still reasoned that, in some hypothetical where testing on 1 animal could mean that 10 other animals could leave, it would be quite unreasonable to not test on that animal. This point of view attracted a lot of criticism in mainstream vegan circles such as Facebook groups. One particularly emotive and memorable comment (which I paraphrase) was:

“You would put poison in the eyes of a puppy?”

To which I replied:

“To save 10 other puppies? Yes. If you wouldn’t you’re in effect killing 10 puppies to save 1 to save yourself feeling uncomfortable. That doesn’t make sense.”

We got nowhere but I was satisfied I had soundly won that debate on logical grounds. What got me thinking, though, was this video interview with Francione, where he argued that welfare reform is actually just not effective, and that we already had a welfare reform under Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832). Things did get a little better for exploited animals, but after a while people became complacent and things got worse. That seemed reasonable enough to me. And so while I never dropped the utilitarian stance, I was open to the possibility that, even on utilitarian grounds, an abolitionist approach was just better in the long run.

Perhaps the best way to be a utilitarian is to pretend not to be a utilitarian.

And so I called myself an abolitionist, and started acting like one. I became opposed to the owning of pets, to welfare reform campaigns, and to advocating for anything less than veganism. I began arguing with my non-vegan family more and started to find it harder to function in a society of meat eaters. But I’m no stranger to dealing with adversity for the sake of my goals, and so I pushed on.

The turn

I began questioning Francione’s point of view when I heard him state in a talk that he wouldn’t test on one animal even if it meant curing cancer, which reminded me of the conversation I had had on Facebook. The math just didn’t add up for me.

I read Francione’s Rain Without Thunder (1996), or at least made it halfway before giving up. He had some solid points in that welfare reforms simply were not as effective as people thought they were, and possibly made things worse. He criticised Peter Singer and his utilitarian stance towards animals (who believes that animal use could be acceptable as long as their interests are considered equally to human interests), and praised Tom Regan‘s deontological position of giving all animals rights, although he didn’t spend any time justifying why deontology was better than utilitarianism. The more I read, the less I was convinced.

The tipping point

The final tipping point was when I was reading Brian Tomasik‘s work on wild animal suffering. He argued that a rights approach to animals might actually increase animal suffering in the long run, if we consider wild animals. I directly quote from Wikipedia here:

“The argument is that animal rights leads people to believe that all animals have fundamental rights and should not be exploited or interfered with, regardless of the outcome on wellbeing. This may lead people to be against interfering with nature and wild animals. However, the magnitude of wild animal suffering is potentially immense,[9] and interfering with the wild may be a good way to reduce this suffering.”

I feel that the reason most discussions about abolitionism go nowhere is because people aren’t even valuing the same thing, and so of course they have different answers. If you primarily value the wellbeing of animals and disvalue their suffering, you would probably seek to do whatever max/mins wellbeing/suffering in the long run, which might be an abolitionist-like methodology, and might not. If you want to try and optimise for individual rights instead of wellbeing you’d perhaps take a different approach.

I’m becoming less convinced that I should try and optimise for rights above and beyond how it relates to wellbeing. If it came down to me choosing (all else being equal including flow-on effects, which doesn’t really happen in reality of course) between an animal being happy and an animal being miserable but slightly less exploited, I don’t think I could justify the latter. It seems almost forceful and exploitative itself to choose to consign some animal to misery just so they can be a bit less exploited. Surely what animals fundamentally value themselves is wellbeing, not a lack of exploitation. Humans value not being exploited because it feels bad. Non-human animals only feel bad in factory farmed conditions because such conditions objectively suck for animals. They are abused and are kept in awful conditions. I’m not convinced that ‘humane’ slaughter is possible in reality, and so I still won’t advocate for it, but I won’t pretend that there is some other thing that animals value called ‘rights’.

Final thoughts

As the icing on the cake, I expressed my concerns to Francione on his Facebook page, and he deleted my comment and blocked from liking the page. Well said, Francione.

Should you donate to Animal Charity Evaluators even if you’re not vegan?

If you haven’t heard of Animal Charity Evaluators (ACE) yet, there’s a really neat summary of them here, but in short, they are doing research on the most effective ways to help animals and reduce their suffering. They perform foundational research on a range of things from the effectiveness of various interventions, such as leafleting to encourage people to go vegan or eat less meat, to the scale of wild animal suffering (it’s huge).

They also produce recommendations on which charities to donate to in order to reduce animal suffering. Perhaps counterintuitively, they don’t recommend animal shelters. This is because the impact of creating one extra vegan on animal wellbeing is so high that it makes the impact of sheltering one extra animal look tiny in comparison. ACE estimates that Vegan Outreach, one of their standout charities which does leafleting at universities, can spare 1.87 animals from a life on a factory farm per dollar donated. By reducing the demand for meat, the animals are, in theory1, never brought into existence in the first place. If you believe like I do that a life of immense suffering is worse than no life at all, this is surely a good thing.

Let’s suppose that rescuing and sheltering one animal costs $50. I have no idea what it costs but I think this is a safe underestimate. Therefore, for the same cost that it takes to shelter an animal, Vegan Outreach can spare 93.5 animals from a life of suffering. Unless you value shelter animals much more than you do food animals, you should donate to Vegan Outreach (or better yet, ACE, to multiply your impact). I don’t think you should value shelter animals more than food animals though. They can all suffer, and in fact pigs are more intelligent than dogs, so if capacity to suffer is what you care about, you should probably care about pigs a little more than dogs.

So this is why I would argue you should donate to an effective animal charity rather than a shelter, but what about the original question? There are many great reasons to go vegan, and it’s really easy, yet many have still decided to not go vegan because they enjoy the taste of animals too much.  Even if this is you, I think you should still donate to ACE. Most people who eat animals still claim to care about animals, so if you want to be at least partially consistent with that belief, the very least you could do is donate to a charity which is reducing their suffering. Of course, I think being vegan is far easier than people think, and you should do this as well because it’s not one or the other (see this video for how to literally go vegan overnight). I’m also not saying that anything but a vegan lifestyle is ethically justified, and don’t want to make it sound like I’m supporting that. But if you can’t bring yourself to be completely vegan, at least donate a chunk of your money to ACE2. Last estimate I heard was that it costs $500 to create one vegan through Vegan Outreach, so you should donate at least that much3. But why stop there?

Let’s go one step further and say that you currently donate to charities that focus on humans. Arguably the most effective charity working on poverty and global health, the Against Malaria Foundation (AMF), saves a human life for around $3,300 USD. In effect, you would have to value human life something like 3,000+ times more than the life of an animal to donate to AMF instead of a top animal charity.


1 I say in theory because other factors such as market elasticity are at play which dilute your effect.

2 I’m wary that such a stance will make people less likely to go vegan and to just donate a bit of money to ACE and think they’re ok. I think, on balance, this article is more likely to have a net positive effect than a net negative effect (otherwise I wouldn’t have posted it), but I want to make it doubly clear that I think you should do both.

3 An interesting conclusion comes out of this which might be uncomfortable for those who aren’t consequentialist in their ethical beliefs. If donating $1 is expected to save 1.87 animals from a life of suffering, that means that by not donating, you have confined 1.87 animals to a life of suffering, because there is no morally relevant different between an action and an inaction (think walking past a drowning child in a shallow pond when you could easily save them). By extension, if you’re vegan (or even if you’re not) and you spend $20 on a nice restaurant meal when you could have eaten for $5, having spent $15 on yourself needlessly instead of donating it to a top animal charity, you have consigned 28 animals to a life of suffering. Consider that next time you dine out. This leads to questions like ‘well where does it end then?’ Maybe it doesn’t. Living on less is easy and arguably better for your wellbeing, and you get to save a ton of lives. Why wouldn’t you?

Disclosure: While Michael has worked with ACE in the past, he has never been an employee or an official volunteer.

The morality of having a meat-eating pet

In this article I examine the relative impact on the environment and animal suffering of having one pet compared to eating an average omnivorous diet instead of a vegan diet. Note that this analysis is relative, with the final results in terms of animals consumed in both cases to allow for a rough comparison. I time-limited this research to 1 hour on purpose and so the study is not as in-depth as it could be, and I assume that I have not missed any major unforeseen factors in my work. If I have, I want to know, so please tell me in the comments.

My family has two cats and one dog, all of whom eat canned pet food every day, which is mostly meat. After going vegan for ethical reasons, it occurred to me that my pets were also consuming animal flesh, which presumably led to some non-zero amount of suffering. Therefore, by having a pet, I was still contributing a good deal to suffering. I wanted to determine just how much suffering.

Let us first assume that each pet consumes one can of pet food per day for the sake of argument. I am using a 400g can of Whiskas cat food for this example. The can states that the ingredients are ‘Meat including chicken, beef and/or lamb and/or pork and turkey; gelling agents; vegetable oil; colouring agents; flavours; vitamins and minerals; taurine; plant extracts’. It does not state which meats are used, nor in what quantity to the non-meat components. I will conservatively assume that only half the can is meat (i.e. 200g of meat per pet per day) and examine two cases; all beef and all chicken.

An important question here is whether the meat is factory farmed or not, as this makes a significant difference to the amount of suffering experienced by the food animals. According to Ethical Consumer, Whiskas pet food contains factory farmed meat, dairy and eggs. I believe that it is safe to assume that most pet food is factory farmed. Another important question is whether the meat is primarily ‘waste product’. If it is, reducing the demand for it may not have as strong an effect on suffering as if ‘human grade’ meat is used, though I expect the effects to be similar.

Edit (08/06/18) – One of the biggest critiques of this post was indeed that animal-based pet food is mostly waste product. According to Ryan Bethencourt, this might have been the case 10 years ago, but not anymore. As much as 1/3rd of the meat consumed in the US is consumed by pets.


The average chicken has a 2.26 kg market weight after 5 weeks, which I have interpreted to mean the amount of usable meat at time of sale. In this case, an average pet will consume 1 chicken in just over 11 days, or 33 chickens per year.

Beef (cow)

This article estimates that 490 pounds (222.26 kg) of usable meat is retrieved from a cow. In this case, an average pet will consume 1 cow in around 1,111 days, or 0.33 cows per year.

Average omnivorous diet

According to the Vegan Calculator, the average American eats 11 cows and 2,400 chickens over their life (as well as 27 pigs, 80 turkeys, 30 sheep and 4,500 fish). Using the average US citizen life expectancy of 79 years, this amounts to around 0.14 cows and 30.38 chickens per year. Comparing this to the average number of cows or chickens consumed by a pet in a year, we can see that, for one type of animal at least, the impact of having a pet is comparable to the impact of eating an omnivorous diet over a vegetarian (or vegan) diet. Thus I argue that having a pet that consumes meat is about as unethical as consuming meat yourself.

Some argue that there is a difference as some pets need to consume meat to live, while humans don’t. This is true, however an alternative is to simply not get a meat eating pet in the first place. This argument also places the wellbeing of a single pet animal as being orders of magnitude higher than that of a food animal, which is speciesist. On the topic of rescuing animals from shelters, perhaps it is better to let the animal die so that hundreds of others may live.

Some people claim to need animals for reasons of mental wellbeing, and I make no comment on whether or not this is true. However there are many pets that don’t require meat to live a healthy life, and I would strongly recommend having such a pet, like a pig, over one that does require meat. I also make no comment as to whether certain pets like cats can live on a meat free diet. I have heard that this is possible, but do not recommend it without further research.

A video version of this is available here.

On veganism and morality

I believe that exploiting animals for their flesh is fundamentally wrong.

If you know me, that shouldn’t be a surprise; I’m a vegan for ethical reasons, so it logically follows that I think eating meat is wrong, and therefore that anyone who does eat meat is doing something wrong. I’m occasionally told that this view makes people feel uncomfortable, and that I should be more respective of the personal choice of others. Let’s look at what a personal choice is.

A personal choice is choosing not to exercise, or choosing to watch one movie instead of another. Physically harming and exploiting a human for pleasure is not a personal choice. If you believe, as I do, that non-human animals can feel and suffer almost as much as humans can (science believes this too – even for fish and (maybe) insects), then you should also hold the view that paying someone to physically harm and exploit animals is not actually a personal choice.

Now let’s think about discomfort. If you lived in a society of people who harm humans for pleasure, you would, presumably, feel justified in making people feel uncomfortable and telling them they are doing something wrong, and making it clear that you do not condone their actions, even if they only have slaves several days a week. Again, as animals can suffer just like humans, there should be no qualms with making it clear that harming animals for pleasure is wrong in an assertive manner. There is probably nothing to be gained by being overly aggressive, but there is also probably nothing to be gained by being overly passive (a view shared by Dr Casey Taft, who wrote Motivational methods for effective vegan advocacy: A clinical psychology perspective).

There are those who choose to remain passive for the sake of their own immediate wellbeing, and that of those around them, but I don’t believe this to be the right choice. For the same reasons we tell loved ones that they can’t sing to save them happiness in the future, despite the short term discomfort, we should be comfortable telling those close to us that their actions are not ethical. Imagine a friend or family member reaching the end of the life and realising they did something wrong for the last 80 years, despite multiple opportunities to change. Would you not prefer that you had helped them realise that earlier? Not to mention it places a very low weighting on the wellbeing of the 7,000 animals that the average human eats in their lifetime.

As recently as 150 years ago the majority of the world believed that it was acceptable to use and abuse humans who were sufficiently different to them. Presumably we are quite happy there were those who stood up and made the slave traders uncomfortable. However, today we still use and abuse other beings simply because they are different. Very little has changed – we are just a little kinder to 1 species amongst millions.

For an anecdote, I recently attended a strategy meeting with an environmental organisation in Australia. The focus was on effective means of advocating for climate action in the lead up to the Federal election in July. I mentioned that I was seriously concerned that so many individuals and organisations claimed to care about the environment, and would actually harass people who don’t (they spent 10 minutes insulting the personal character of a local politician who was not present), and yet still don’t make the one lifestyle change which makes the biggest difference of all; going vegan. Further, the same organisations and people refuse to make vegan advocacy a priority for mitigating climate change. Everyone in the room averted their eyes. I don’t feel bad for making them uncomfortable. If I was in a room of climate change deniers I would happily tell them they are wrong about that. This exchange was different in topic, but not in theme.

This is mostly a piece on what I believe. The most effective means of advocacy, and therefore what I should do in practice, is another question entirely. To that end, I’m currently writing a review paper on the effectiveness of different actions that individuals and organisations can take to reduce and hopefully eliminate the suffering and exploitation of human and non-human animals. However, in conclusion, I don’t believe there is anything to be gained by being passive in the face of atrocities.

The standard you walk past, is the standard you accept.” Lieutenant General David Morrison

If you are reading this and thinking that you are too old to change because of habit, I’d like to dissuade you of that notion. There are more and more examples of people of all ages making the change. But even if you believe that change gets harder as you get older, that should be reason to make the change now, not to wait.

The problem with so many advocacy groups

Recently I’ve become somewhat jaded with typical advocacy groups, which are usually in the form of non-profit organisations. These organisations are very often single issue groups – they pick a side in a debate (sometimes for great reasons, sometimes not), and stick to it. In fact, they are bound to stick to it – a point I’ll return to shortly.

Take an extreme example like the Anti-Nuclear Alliance of Western Australia. They are clearly committed to being against nuclear. Without actually taking sides here and completely ignoring the science (because for this thought experiment it’s irrelevant), let’s say that we know for a fact that nuclear use is unsound – the ANAWA would therefore have very good reasons to be against nuclear in (Western) Australia. But let’s now say that the state of science has changed. We realised we were wrong, and now we’re very certain that nuclear usage is not only safe, but beneficial and necessary to tackle climate change (these scientific flips really aren’t that uncommon, even today). In this hypothetical world, we’re now more sure that nuclear is safe and beneficial than we are that smoking causes lung cancer. What happens to the Anti-Nuclear Alliance of Western Australia?

In all honestly, I dare say they would most likely stick to their policy line. Their organisational mission, strategy and vision all dictate that they fight against nuclear in Australia. They owe it to their stakeholders, the donors who are giving money to them to fight nuclear, to continue their path. I see this as a fundamental flaw of such an organisation.

I often joke about a charity called the ‘Do The Right Thing Society’, or the ‘Best Possible World Organisation’, whose mission is simply to make the world as good a place as possible. Such an organisation might not be as appealing to the majority of the public as something more punchier, even if they happen to have the same mission at the time because the science aligns with public sentiment that way. The advantage with DTRTS though is that they are committed to updating their mission and actions with new evidence. If we expect individuals to do this, why can’t we demand the same of charities, or political parties for that matter?

In essence, I do believe that Effective Altruism seeks to plug this gap. At its core, it’s a movement of people seeking to find the most effective ways to maximise well being while being neutral to individual causes.

There are some things that we can be quite confident will not change, like the fact that non-human animals, women and other groups persecuted in the past and present should not be exploited. However, society did once believe that it was right to keep slaves, right for women to not vote, and many still believe that it is right to exploit animals. People should be open to changing their minds, even on their most closely held beliefs.

I have a nightmare that historians a mere 200 years in the future will look at my actions with horror, or kindly explain to each other that my actions were a product of the time and there’s nothing I could have done about it. What do we do today that will be abhorrent in the future? I think the only thing we can do is stay open minded about morality, whilst accepting that there is a right answer out there somewhere, and we are always striving towards it.

Rate of growth of veganism

I heard a statistic right at the end of this video from 2014 by vegan advocate and psychologist Melanie Joy.

In the United States, the number of vegans and vegetarians has doubled in the past three years.

This got my attention. Even with a low starting point, if that rate of increased continued, it would quickly hit 100%. How quickly? The answer might surprise you.

Estimates of the proportion of vegans within countries vary greatly from year to year, and even between studies, probably due to small or biased samples. One only needs to look at three surveys produced by the Vegetarian Resource Group in 2011, 2012 and 2015. The number of vegetarians (including vegans) goes from 5%, to 4% to 3.4%. It seems unreasonable to believe (though I wouldn’t quite fall off my chair if I’m wrong) that the proportion of vegetarians in a developed nation is dropping over recent years. The sample sizes of these studies (and many similar ones) is around a few thousand, which might give statistically significant results, but they are still uncertain. As such, I don’t believe the number is actually decreasing, and I’m happy to take a doubling of vegans over 3 years at face value for the purpose of this estimate.

If we take a lower bound and say 0.5% (which seems highly likely to be a lower bound for USA), and model in a 100% increase in proportion every 3 years, we get this.

Years from nowProportion of vegans in USA

So we might expect to see a full population of vegans, at least in USA, barring some outliers, after around 21-24 years. We assume a constant rate of growth here, which is highly unlikely to be true. But will it get faster or slower over time? When we look at many social justice movements (e.g. black rights, abolition of slavery), they follow an exponential growth rate [do they?]. We might also expect veganism to hit a run away critical mass. We should probably also expect that there will be some people who will simply take much longer to change their underlying beliefs if not their actions, just like we still have some people who wish minority groups are still treated differently in secret. In the same way, animal exploitation will probably be illegal long before all humans disagree with it. If we’re off on the growth rate by double, as in it is only doubling every 6 years, we’d still simplistically expect to see a vegan USA within 48 years.

This is incredibly simplistic and possibly over optimistic, but it does serve to bring some hope. We might be closer to the end of exploitation than we think. We’re winning the fight, but we can’t let up.

The Vegetarian Resource Group studies for 2011, 2012 and 2015.