Monday, August 22, 2016

The World Does Not Work the Way We Want It To

One of the most common responses to my post about the skyrocketing number of chickens suffering and dying in the United States has been: "Just wait until climate change kicks in!"

But climate change is already impacting markets, and its impact is to move people from eating cows to eating chickens. Not to be repetitive, but given that it takes over 200 chickens to make the same number of meals as one cow, this move leads to vastly more suffering and death.

The latest example of this is the worldwide move to ban beef, as discussed in this article about Leonardo DiCaprio. Of course, over and over and all across the world, it has been shown that people who cut back on red meat eat more chickens.

Tobias Leenaert,  one of the founders of the Belgian organization Ethical Vegetarian Alternative, has a really insightful saying: You Are Not Your Audience (YANYA).

This was one of my greatest failings in my early years of advocacy – I chose my message based on what sounded good to me, rather than what would have the biggest impact on non-vegetarians.

Nobel laureate Herb Simon makes the important point that took me years to understand: People don’t make optimal choices. Rather, we make choices that are good enough.

Consider this chart:

Where the Y-axis is any negative measure – pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, water usage, saturated fat, etc.

If they care at all about the measure, the vast majority of people would look at this chart and say, “I should give up A.” And a few might say, “I should give up A, B, and C.” No one will say, “I should only consume I.”

But put labels on the chart:

And now vegans see something different: a case for veganism. It will, of course, be true – a vegan will generally use less water, or cause less pollution / global warming, or consume less saturated fat.

The labels don’t change anything, however. Non-vegan people are still going to see beef as bad, or beef, pork, and veal as bad – and everything else as "good." (And if you truly want to be "perfect," you must only eat potatoes. Good luck selling that.)

Here is a real-world example of my sample graphs:

Click for larger. 
Of course, we see what we consider to be the best ("vegan is best!"). But the general public just sees things that are worse (beef, sheep), and things that are better (pork, chicken, eggs).

Given that any switch from big animals to small leads to much more suffering, we simply can't afford to offer any argument that even might lead people switch to eating birds. Continuing and worsening climate change won't help the spread of veganism; it will increase the horrors faced by birds.


  1. I think the point here (or one of them) is that climate change arguments have a lot of negatives associated with them. Possibly so much that it's a "net negative" argument for suffering. So choose your positions wisely, know your audience, and because it takes more chickens to make 100lb of meat, give them a priority.

    Right Matt?