Thursday, July 21, 2016

Updated ACE Charts

Thanks to our friends at Animal Charity Evaluators for updating two of the three most important graphs out there.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Why Not Fish?

I'm often asked why I don't argue that advocates should focus on fish, given that the numbers of fish killed every year is even higher than chickens. I am, of course, heartened when people are concerned about numbers, as opposed to only working on things that they personally find most compelling.

There are a number of factors that go into my thinking regarding how to advocate, and why not to focus on fish with our first-line advocacy. Here are some of the factors, in abbreviated form (feel free to contact me for more details):

  1. Some people focus entirely on numbers, and not the reality behind the numbers. But I don't care about numbers, I care about suffering.
  2. Most "fish" that are killed (just based on numbers) aren't sentient / don't suffer (clams, oysters, shrimp).
  3. Most vertebrate fish that are killed are wild fish who would have suffered greatly in their "natural" death if they hadn't been caught. So catching a wild fish doesn't clearly increase the suffering in the world.
  4. Only farmed vertebrate fish (e.g., catfish) might be adding suffering to the world by choices to eat them.

Chart by Ben Davidow.

  5. Our most likely audience for dietary change (youngish women) don't eat much fish. Ellen says she never saw her high school or college friends eating fish. Always chickens. The numbers and the suffering are only two of the three factors we must consider; tractability is also key.

But when advocates start saying things like "500 fish/ year," we greatly distract from where our efforts can actually have the biggest impact on actually reducing suffering.

And, of course, every time we add on something else to our ask, we undermine the point of having a single, do-able, impactful first-step act. As always, my approach isn't based on what is "right" or "consistent" or "popular." I try to shape my advocacy such that it can have the biggest possible impact in the real world.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Belief on the Right Side of History

A talk in Salt Lake City, UT, 2012
The Accidental Activist

Most people think a concern for animals is limited to liberals. But this isn’t necessarily the case. Many leafleters report they were received more openly at places like Brigham Young and the University of Oklahoma than Berkeley or the University of Colorado in Boulder.

I am a good example as well. I was raised in a religious family and went to religious schools all the way through high school. I read Ayn Rand and considered myself a “neo-con.”

Three events changed my outlook.

The first occurred when I was in high school. An older cousin I had admired left our church and joined the Baha’i religion. As nearly everyone I knew—my circle of friends, classmates—were of same religion, I had hardly ever considered other religions; when I did, I thought of them as slightly “wrong” versions of Christianity. Yet here was a very different religion that led my cousin to leave the church of her upbringing. Obviously, my first reaction was to simply dismiss my cousin as misguided, and the Baha’i religion as heresy. But in the back of my mind, I wondered.

The second event was studying World War II. (Growing up, I loved airplanes; WWII was the time of greatest change in aircraft.) I had always assumed the Holocaust was the work of just a few individuals. I discovered, though, that the Germans knew what was going on, and, except for a relatively small proportion of the population, supported it.

Like most Americans, I had always been horrified by slavery in our country. The idea of treating other people as mere property—and that so many people would fight and die for the “right” to do so—was both shocking and appalling. Simply and utterly bewildering.

But learning more about the Holocaust revealed an even worse aspect of human nature—where people turn on their fellow citizens, systematically and methodically exterminating them.

Holocaust Memorial, Berlin.

Obviously, the normal reaction is to assume that I would have been a part of the Underground Railroad, or would have protected the Anne Franks of the world. But . . . really? Did I honestly think I would have gone against the overwhelming majority of my society? If I had been raised in a slave-holding household in a slave-holding society, would I really have stood up? Was I truly different from everyone who viewed certain people as “property,” who went along with Hitler’s “Final Solution”?

Did I honestly think I would have been different from nearly everyone else?

And if all these millions could fully believe things that, today, are so obviously absurd and repulsive, how could I assume everything I currently believed was absolutely right? If so many would willingly support gruesome atrocities, how could I possibly think everything today is morally pure? Even if I’m not chaining up a slave or leading my fellow citizens to the gas chambers, isn’t it possible—even probable—that I am at least tacitly supporting another horror, one that future generations will also look upon with bewilderment?

The answer came my first year of college, when I met my vegetarian roommate. Fred—a big block of a man—introduced me to the horrors of modern agribusiness. Again, I was not a liberal. I was a middle-class kid who dreamed of a successful career, a bigger house, a cool car, an elaborate stereo system, travel, and good food. That first week of college, my parents and I planned to celebrate my future graduation at the city’s five-star French restaurant.

I didn’t go vegetarian. As uncomfortable as Fred made me with his stories of how animals were treated on farms—the brandings, the de-beakings, the tail dockings, the confinement—I justified eating animals by saying that they were “just animals.”

But the stories did bother me. There’s plenty of gruesome video footage to turn your stomach  (more is released every month), but I’d rather give a description from the New York Times (“An Animal’s Place,” by Michael Pollan, November 10, 2002):

Piglets in confinement operations are weaned from their mothers [quickly] because they gain weight faster on their hormone- and antibiotic-fortified feed. This premature weaning leaves the pigs with a lifelong craving to suck and chew, a desire they gratify in confinement by biting the tail of the animal in front of them. A normal pig would fight off his molester, but a demoralized pig has stopped caring. “Learned helplessness” is the psychological term, and it’s not uncommon in confinement operations, where tens of thousands of hogs spend their entire lives ignorant of sunshine or earth or straw, crowded together beneath a metal roof upon metal slats suspended over a manure pit. So it’s not surprising that an animal as sensitive and intelligent as a pig would get depressed, and a depressed pig will allow his tail to be chewed on to the point of infection. Sick pigs, being underperforming “production units,” are clubbed to death on the spot. The USDA’s recommended solution to the problem is called “tail docking.” Using a pair of pliers (and no anesthetic), most but not all of the tail …is snipped off. Why the little stump? Because the whole point of the exercise is not to remove the object of tail-biting so much as to render it more sensitive. Now, a bite on the tail is so painful that even the most demoralized pig will mount a struggle to avoid it.

And a different section:

[T]he American laying hen . . . passes her brief span piled together with a half-dozen other hens in a wire cage whose floor a single page of this magazine could carpet. Every natural instinct of this animal is thwarted, leading to a range of behavioral “vices” that can include cannibalizing her cagemates and rubbing her body against the wire mesh until it is featherless and bleeding. . . . [T]he [five percent] or so of hens that can’t bear it and simply die is built into the cost of production.

This last point is important: if you look at the statistics, hundreds of millions of animals a year die before going to slaughter.

Just think about that: hundreds of millions die before even being shipped to slaughter.

I assume my dilemma at this point is clear. Obviously, I considered myself a good person—an ethical, kind, and thoughtful human being. And yet, here I was, supporting what is clearly a modern-day atrocity. “Our own worst nightmare” is how the New York Times describes modern agribusiness, and I was giving this nightmare my money to continue to tail dock, de-beak, confine, forcibly impregnate, brand, dehorn, and otherwise brutalize these thinking, feeling creatures.

And the argument: “They’re only animals”? Having seen this phrase used to justify slavery and Hitler’s “Final Solution,” I certainly didn’t want to be uttering the phrase “just animals.” I read the various justifications for past atrocities—not just from hateful, ignorant people, but from some of America’s and Germany’s leading citizens: professors, clergy, civic leaders, and politicians. I saw just how easily the vast majority of people went along with the prejudice of their day: to believe whatever they were taught without question, no matter the contradictions or consequences.

So I couldn’t simply accept the line, “They’re just animals.”

Here is where I should tell you about the great breakthrough, where I went from unquestioningly accepting society’s norm to animal advocate. But it didn’t happen that way.
I did go vegetarian for a while, late in my first year of college, but soon I convinced myself I was starving on the cafeteria’s beans and Cap’n Crunch. To my lasting shame, I went back to eating animals, just like all my friends and family.

But I couldn’t stop thinking about what it means to eat meat. Even if they were “just animals,” my choices caused them to suffer—suffer terribly and die horribly. My choices deprived them of the life they wanted to live. My choices—the choices I was consciously making, every day—created absolutely unnecessary suffering.

The next year, I was living off campus, entirely responsible for my own food choices. One day, I was looking in the mirror and the thought just came to me: “How can I consider myself a good person if I continue to eat animals?”

I had no answer.

And then the medicine cabinet started shaking, and a deafening “Bam! Bam! Bam!” filled the room.

I’ve never eaten another animal.

Now obviously, there is much more to discuss: everything from nutrition to priorities to optimal advocacy to the future of society.

But before all that are questions that took me so very, very long to fully consider. We each have to ask the question: What kind of person are we? Will we accept what our society dictates today, or will we write our own story? Will we rationalize the status quo or thoughtfully make our own decisions? Will we oppose cruelty or support slaughter?

Slowly, very slowly, embarrassingly slowly, I came to realize there are more important things in life than accepting the status quo and taking the easiest path. Choosing the road less traveled does not necessitate denial and deprivation. Making our lives a part of something real, something larger than ourselves—this expands our life’s narrative, enriches our existence, and allows for real meaning and lasting happiness.

History shows that questioning society is necessary in all times. Today, choosing not to eat animals makes a public, powerful, ethical statement—not just about the lives of animals, but about the nature of our character. It shows that we are honestly striving to be truly good, thoughtful people.

Monday, July 4, 2016

Real World Consequences

You couldn't go anywhere on social media last week without seeing the Washington Post article "Meat Is Horrible" in everyone's feed.

Obviously, anyone concerned with animals is eager to promote something that says "meat is horrible," especially when it comes from an "unbiased" source such as the Washington Post. We want and need everyone to realize just how horrible meat really is!

However, as we've discussed before, it is important to dispassionately analyze how a story will actually play out in the real world. We've pointed out here many times that Bad News for Red Meat Is Bad News for Chickens. We've run the numbers, and put it in graph form (and again).

This new article is an absolutely textbook case of unintended consequences. The clarification is right in the article's first sentence (emphasis added): "evidence is accumulating that meat, particularly red meat, is just a disaster for the environment."

Here is their main graph (click for larger):

So yes, eating cows and sheep is bad, but eating nuts is just as bad! Pulses (beans) are way worse than milk and eggs, and basically equal to chicken.

If we aren't blinded by the headline saying that [red] meat is horrible, we would see that the general, meat-eating public is receiving yet another argument to eat eggs and chickens, which are the "food" products that cause the most suffering.

Yet you would be hard pressed to find an "animal advocate" who hasn't been touting this anti-bean-and-nuts / pro-chicken article. Plenty of utilitarians have promoted it, even when, in their Facebook comment section about this article, they receive notes such as:

The bewildering thing is that this is the norm. Every time I speak, I ask the crowd if they've ever been told, "Oh, I don't eat much meat. Just chicken [and fish]." Every single person raises their hand.

And yet we continually spend our limited time and resources promoting articles that provide meat eaters "scientific proof" that red meat is terrible, and chicken is way way better.

If you have read this and seen two graphics below, you know that the consequences for chicken are the main ballgame. We should try to keep this in mind when deciding what to promote to the general public.


Wednesday, June 29, 2016

30 Years in 40 Minutes

The great team who put on Madison's VegFest (thanks, Gina, Evan, and team!) recorded my talk, Can Our Choices Make a Difference. Most of the time was spent on questions and answers, so even if you have read the article, you might enjoy the video as well.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Can Our Choices Make a Difference?

Talk, as prepared, for Madison, WI, and Chicago, IL, June 2016. -Matt Ball
Let’s start with a pop quiz. How many vegans does it take to change a lightbulb?
Lightbulbs aren’t vegan!
For some of us, the question, “Can our choices make a difference?” seems silly. Of course our choices make a difference! A lot of people, though, think that in a world of seven billion people, what is actually silly is to think that one person’s choices can make a difference.
A good friend of mine, Jason Gaverick Matheny, wrote a scholarly analysis, Expected Utility, Contributory Causation, and Vegetarianism, that was published in a peer reviewed journal. In that paper, he lays out calculations that indicate our choices supposedly do make a difference.
However, I don’t know many people who choose what food to buy based on a utilitarian calculation of weighted probabilities and Bayes’ Theorem. For example, I stopped eating animals thirty years ago because I realized I couldn’t consider myself a good person if I was paying others to raise and butcher animals simply so I could enjoy a taste of flesh. Actually making a difference in the real world wasn’t a consideration.
This is a good example of my early days: I was concerned with being “right.”
I wanted to “win an argument with a meat eater.” I wanted to ridicule meat eaters. I wasn’t focused on actually changing the world, actually reducing the number of animals suffering.
Contrary to my approach then, Peter Singer took this question seriously in his book Animal Liberation. He was sympathetic to the idea that one person, acting in isolation, may very well not make a difference.
I can see this now. Even if we are the strictest vegan, some of our economic activity eventually pays the salaries of non-vegetarians, allowing them to buy more meat. In the end, the only way our food choices could have absolutely minimal negative impact would be if we didn’t exist.
So let’s set non-existence as our baseline.
Can we do better than that, in terms of making the world a better place?
Let me try to answer that by starting with some history.
When I stopped eating animals, I was simply angry.
As I said, I wanted to fight with meat eaters – attack and mock them. I obsessed and worried about abstractions and words and principles. I argued about exploitation, oppression, liberation.
The single most important lesson I’ve learned since then is that the irreducible heart of what matters is suffering. Back then, although I was sure I knew everything, I really didn’t know anything about suffering. Since then, though, I’ve developed a chronic disease, and experienced times when I thought I was going to die, times when I wished I would die.
Back in the mid-1980s, I didn’t take suffering seriously. Now, however, knowing what suffering really is, and knowing how much there is in the world, all my previous concerns seem – well, to put it kindly, silly.

Today, I realize that our individual day-to-day food choices matter very little compared to the impact we can potentially have with our example, our advocacy, and our donations.
So let me summarize, really quickly, a few facts and statistics from the past 30 years that can help us make a real, meaningful difference in the real world.
You’ve probably all seen this graph from Animal Charity Evaluators. I know you can’t see it clearly, but the take-away is that to a first approximation, every animal killed in the United States is a farm animal.
Compare that to this second graph, which shows where animal-related charitable donations go. Now, farm animals are the tiny sliver in the bottom right. In short, when trying to make a difference for animals, we’re working with one hand tied behind our backs, because resources are in no way allocated proportionally.
Not surprisingly, we’ve not done the best job.
Here we see the results of the Vegetarian Resource Group's surveys of the last sixteen years (without error bars, which are huge). Although from within the vegan bubble, it can feel as though there are tons more vegans, the actual surveys of the actual population in the United States shows no clear growth in the percentage of the US population that is vegetarian. Or, to look at it on the appropriate scale:
In terms of meat consumption, it is even worse.
This graph shows per capita meat consumption in the US. While beef has declined, chicken consumption has more than doubled. Given how small birds are, this means many many more animals are dying every year, compared to when Peter Singer published Animal Liberation.
As an aside, I know we all have a much greater affinity for mammals than for birds.
But not only are chickens being killed in vastly greater numbers than cows or pigs, they are suffering absolute horrible cruelty.
Here is one more piece of bad news.
According to a number of surveys, including the most recent one by Faunalytics, the vast majority of people who go vegetarian or vegan eventually go back to eating animals. More than four out of every five individuals who go veg eventually quit!
It would be bad enough to realize that we’re throwing away more than 80% of advocacy efforts. But it is actually worse than that. Everyone who quits being veg becomes an anti-spokesperson against compassionate eating – a public (and often loud) example opposing taking any steps that help animals.
So with all that said, what do we know that might actually help us?
First is a graph from Ben Davidow.

This shows the relative number of animals harmed by the standard American diet. And you can see that the vast, vast majority of those animals are birds.
Looking at it a different way is this graph from Mark Middleton at AnimalVisuals, showing the number of deaths caused by producing a million calories of different food, including grains, vegetables, and fruits. Mark explicitly concludes, “Leaving chicken and eggs out of our diets will have the greatest effect on reducing the suffering and death caused by what we eat.”
Now I don’t want to just focus on death in and of itself. I would much rather be a field mouse living free until killed by a combine harvesting soybeans, compared to a chicken whose entire life is utter agony.
And I don’t mean that as hyperbole.

Harish Sethu of Counting Animals did an analysis of how many chickens actually suffer to death before making it to the slaughterhouse. These birds die of disease, or are killed because they aren’t growing quickly enough, or have their hearts just give out, or their legs break such that they can’t make it to water. Harish’s calculations show that so many chickens suffer to death that their number dwarfs all the animals killed for fur, in shelters, and in labs, combined. Again – this isn’t the number of chickens killed overall, just the number who suffer to death before even getting to slaughter.
The numbers are incredibly stark.
Again, based on research by Harish, Joe Espinosa notes that the average American consumes about two dozen land animals a year. If one person decided to give up eating birds – just birds – they go from being responsible for the deaths of over two dozen land animals a year to fewer than one. Fewer than one!
However, the converse is also true. Anything that might possibly lead someone to start to replace red meat with chickens will lead to a lot more suffering and killing, as noted by Ginny Messina:

So with all that said, let’s get to some good news!
Previously, we saw a graph that showed the number of chickens being slaughtered going way up.
But in some recent years, this trend has reversed somewhat (upper right).
Click for larger
The decline might not seem like a lot, but given the size of birds and the numbers we were starting with, a small decline translates to many fewer animals suffering – hundreds of millions fewer.
So how does this specifically inform our advocacy?
I would love to say that the decline in the number of land animals killed in the US has been driven by a rise in the number of vegetarians and vegans.
However, as various researchers have pointed out, the change has actually been driven by meat reducers – people who are eating more meat-free meals, but aren’t (yet) vegetarian.
Turning to Faunalytics’ study on recidivism, their data shows that people who went veg for health reasons are the ones who go back to eating meat.
The single biggest difference in motivation between those who quit being vegetarian and those who stay vegetarian is: concern for animals (42% difference).
This is backed up by research by The Humane League Labs, which showed that concern for animals is what inspires lasting dietary change.
So clearly, we need to keep animals at the center of our efforts to help animals!
Research has also told us more about how we can refine our message in such a way as to get the most useful change for animals in the real world.
The Humane League Labs specifically pointed out that we should not focus on dairy when initially dealing with the general public. Not only because of the numbers, but because it is the last thing people think they can give up. Rather, we should focus on chickens, which people can give up and actually makes a significant difference in terms of the numbers of animals suffering. (Of course, this is absolutely not meant to dismiss or downplay the suffering of dairy cows and calves. Rather, this is simply a discussion of how best we can promote a message that will have the biggest possible impact in actually reducing suffering.)
This relates to research I was a part of in 2014 at the University of Arizona.
One of the many interesting take-aways from those four studies was that each one of them found that the general public thinks veganism is impossible, and vegans are, to put it kindly, annoying. This obviously doesn’t matter if we only want to promote veganism regardless of the consequences. But if we actually want to make a difference and reduce the amount of suffering in the world, we should take note of this.
Similarly, many people quit being vegetarian because they found it too hard to live up to the demand for purity.
Again, if we only care about the purity of those who call themselves vegan, then the fact that we’re driving people away is irrelevant. But if we actually want to reduce suffering, we should do everything possible to both embrace and encourage everyone...
...instead of reinforcing people’s stereotypes and trying to build the smallest, angriest, most exclusive club in the world.
The upside is that there is a great deal opportunity out there.
A number of surveys (including the University of Arizona study, quoted in the graphic above) have discovered a shocking willingness among the general population to reduce meat consumption.
And if we are really going to help animals, rather than just police our club, we can reach these members of the general public with an honest, realistic message that actually has a profound impact for animals – reducing and eliminating chickens from our diet.
How can we best do this?
I know this slide from the Humane League Labs is hard to read, but it shows that of the advocacy tools available to us, movies, conversations, websites, and online video have proven to be the most impactful.
Now I know this is a lot to take in in only a few minutes.

But I find it very encouraging to realize we have so much information available to us, such that we know what positive, constructive steps we can take to help change the world for animals.
Two last thoughts. The first is my absolute favorite quote from Gene Baur.
Even while building the world’s leading farm animal sanctuary, Gene was looking at what will be necessary to make sure that one day, as soon as possible, sanctuaries are no longer needed. We simply must go upstream and end the demand for animal products.
And finally a quick note as to why this matters.
For us here, we can debate and argue, philosophize and condemn. We’re all relatively safe and well off, enjoying our sparring and our agreements, our discussion about who’s attacking whom on Facebook, how angry we are about the latest tweet, how delicious the new vegan product is.
On the other hand, it is a cliche, of course, to say that this is a matter of gravest consequences for animals.
As much as I would love to think otherwise, we currently can’t do everything. We do not have infinite time, or infinite resources. But we have to realize that when we choose to do one thing, we are choosing not to do another. We need to choose wisely; we are the animals' voice. We are their hope.
We can each strive to make choices that have the greatest possible impact, that reduce the most suffering, regardless of labels and definitions, regardless of how it makes us look or feel, regardless of popularity. We can make a real difference. We can change the world! Thank you.

Monday, June 13, 2016

"The power is ours now. Let’s never stop fighting."

From Ellen yesterday:
Good morning. 
Where do we go from here?
I’ve spent most of Sunday trying to put the words together to try and say something helpful about this, the loss of 49 of my LGBTQIA sisters, brothers, and siblings, and the injury and suffering of at least 53 more.
I’ve seen people posting that this came as hardly even a surprise, that it was one more day, one more mass shooting. I’ve seen people ready to give up on 2016, a year with 133 mass shootings in 164 days. I’ve seen people ready to give up, period.
And you know what? Fuck that.
Pulse was a place where we were supposed to be able to go and be free to be ourselves. So was Stonewall. But this time, 47 years after the Stonewall Riots, it wasn’t the police we were fighting -- instead, it was police who brought down the murderer.
I don’t say this to minimize the suffering and loss in Orlando. I don’t say this to minimize the hatred that lead to this attack, or the systemic problems we face and will continue to face. I say this to help us remember that change is possible. We have come a long way from a period when we could be arrested for dancing together, or for wearing the “wrong” clothes. Change has happened. Not because “it gets better”, but because people kept fighting even when it seemed impossible.
I say this to remind us of the power we still hold.
I’ve never been one for “thoughts and prayers”. Though often they feel like the best thing we can offer, too often we see them come from insincerity - perhaps you’ve already seen the posts collecting tweets of “thoughts and prayers for Orlando” from politicians who stand against equal rights for LGBTQIA people, who feign care only when it’s socially required, when they can erase who we are and why we were attacked.
I understand the impulse to thoughts and prayers, I don’t live in Orlando, I can’t donate blood or comfort the survivors. There’s nothing I can punch, no race I can run to fix this.
Here’s what I have to offer instead.
I offer a promise. A promise that that I will never stop fighting for us. With words, with advocacy, and importantly, with my ballot. I’ll keep fighting, for those of us who can’t anymore, and for those of us for whom finding a way to stay alive and love who they are is fighting.
We’ve created tremendous change in the past. We have that power now, right now, to keep making change.
Please, take care of yourselves. Mourn as you need to. This day and this week in particular, surviving is fighting. If you need to rest, get offline, binge watch cartoons and cry into some ice cream - do it. Do what you need to do to be safe, that’s what I ask, first and foremost.
But if you’re angry, when you need something to do - let’s get it done. I’ve already emailed my Senators and my Representative, and I recommend that you do too -…/it-s-on-us-too-an-easy-guide-to-contac…this makes it easy. Use the form letter if you want, add what you need, write your own letter - tell them how angry, how saddened you are that 50 of our brothers and sisters are dead, that we can’t stand for this, that it’s long past time for change.
Those politicians offering hollow words? The ones who offer sympathy after they’ve thrown us under the bus countless times with their words and laws? Vote the fuckers out. Register to vote now if you haven’t, . Let’s mobilize NOW to put politicians in office who have proven they will protect us, will fight for our rights, proven that will stand up against laws that allowed this man to buy and carry a fucking assault rifle and murder 50 people. Can you phone bank? Can you stuff envelopes? Can you go door to door? Can you help register your friends to vote, and get them to the polls? Can you help raise awareness, help mobilize people on facebook and twitter? Let’s do it.
Let’s make no mistake: this is political. This became political the moment the shooter bought this assault rifle - ASSAULT RIFLE - legally, without a background check. This was political when the shooter chose to target us in one of our places of safety, on Latin night, on a night headlined by Latinx trans women. This was political when the shooter’s hatred came on the heels of the same hatred and fear from many of our politicians and our laws, seeking to make us unsafe and deny us equality.
Let’s not forget about this. Let’s not let this be another moment of “Never again” that passes too quickly. Let’s remember this in November and beyond.
The power is ours now. Let’s never stop fighting.