Monday, August 10, 2015

Understanding the Numbers for Better Advocacy

2023: For updated views, please see Losing My Religions. Thanks.

Presented at the National Animal Rights Conference, AR2015

Welcome and thanks for coming.

If I say anything that seems like a criticism or judgment, it isn’t meant that way. I’ve made many mistakes in my life – mistakes that have actively hurt our efforts on behalf of animals. We are all fortunate there has been so much research of late that can guide our efforts to help animals as much as possible.

I want to share this research and the relevant numbers with you today. These facts totally changed my approach to advocacy, although they didn’t do so right away. It took me a long time to get over my personal biases and accept and act on reality.

To set the stage, I was not raised a vegetarian, or even a liberal. I didn’t have any clue what went on in the world. I just knew I loved groovy pants!

Admit it: Adorbs!

When I went vegetarian and became an activist in 1980s, I adopted the “Do Something, Do Anything” mode of activism.

This basically defaulted to focusing on whatever was high profile, whatever was in the news, whatever pissed me off the most.

I did march with the anarchists in DC against the first Gulf war. That made a difference! 

 And I did whatever felt best – and this was generally something angry and in-your-face. I wasn’t trying to figure out what would make the biggest difference.

It took me years to come to the most important insight:

I know it goes without saying, but there is an unfathomable amount of cruelty in the world. We simply don’t have the ability to address it all. When we choose what to focus on, we are saying we’re not going to be working on behalf of anything else.

I know this is harsh. But it is a simple logistical truth.

This matters because over the past 40 years, we’ve not done the best job.

For example, this graph shows per capita meat consumption in the U.S. 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.

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 cattle or pigs, they are suffering absolute horrific and unfathomable cruelty.

We need to do better.

So what do we know that can help us improve as activists, that can help us actually make real progress toward a better world for animals?

You’ve probably all seen this slide from Animal Charity Evaluators:

It is the most important graph in my entire presentation. The bottom line is that to a first approximation, every animal killed in the United States is a farm animal.

Compare that to this graph, showing 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.

Unfortunately, it is even worse than that.

This graph, from Harish Sethu’s “Counting Animals” blog, shows the advertising budgets of companies that exploit animals, compared to the full operating budgets of animal advocacy organizations. Just to be clear, the big circles are simply the advertising budgets for Cargill, McDonald’s, etc. The advertising budget of just one of these companies dwarfs the combined operating budgets of PETA, HSUS, MFA, etc.

Now I know this isn’t happy news. I realize this can all seem overwhelming, even hopeless. It is not entirely unreasonable to look at these numbers and just want to work on whatever project is right in front of us, whatever pisses us off.

And yet, before we move on, I want to hit you with one more piece of bad news. According to a number of surveys, including the most recent one by the Faunalytics (Humane Research Council), the vast majority of people who go vegetarian or vegan eventually go back to eating animals. Specifically, 4 out of 5 people who go veg then quit!

It would be bad enough to realize that we’re throwing away 80% of advocacy efforts. But it is actually worse than that. Everyone who quits being veg becomes an anti-spokesperson for compassionate eating – a public (and often loud) example against taking any steps to help animals. Ginny Messina has written more about this (1, 2, 3).

So with all that said, what else do we know that might actually help us?

First, let’s consider this graph from Ben Davidow, which shows the relative number of animals harmed by the standard American diet. 

And you can see that the vast, vast majority of animals harmed are birds.

To look at it a different way, we have this graph from Mark Middleton at AnimalVisuals, showing the number of deaths to produce a million calories of different foods, including grains, vegetables, and fruits:

 He 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.”

Again though, I don’t want to just focus on death.

 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 this as hyperbole. Harish 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 their legs break leaving them unable to make it to water, or have their hearts just give out. Harish’s calculations show that so many chickens suffer to death that their number dwarfs all those killed for fur, in shelters, and in labs. 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 incredible. Again, based on research by Harish, Joe Espinosa notes that the average American consumes about two dozen land animals a year.

If one person decides 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!
The converse is also true: 

Anything that might possibly lead someone to replace red meat with chickens will lead to a lot more suffering and killing, as noted by Ginny Messina.

Between 2008 and 2012, there was a decline in the consumption of chickens (which has, sadly, reversed in the ensuing years). I would love to say that this decline in killing has been driven by a rise of vegetarians and vegans. However, as Nick Cooney notes in Veganomics, the change has actually been driven by meat reducers – people who are eating more meat-free meals, but aren’t vegetarian.

Also from Veganomics, Nick notes that people who buy “humane” animal products eat less meat than the average American. They are also more likely to go vegetarian.

This is a hard bit to swallow. My reaction is to want to attack people who specifically rationalize eating animals. But the data show these people are actually our allies – people we should embrace and encourage.

Turning to recidivism, the data show that people who go veg for health reasons are the ones who go back to eating meat.

The single biggest difference in motivation between those who are currently vegetarian and those who used to be vegetarian is concern for animals.

This is backed up by The Humane League Labs, which showed 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 change for animals.

The Humane League Labs specifically pointed out that we should not focus on dairy.

 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 the biggest difference in the numbers.

This relates to research I was a part of this past spring at the University of Arizona. One of the many interesting take-aways from those studies was that the general public thinks veganism is impossible, and vegans are, to put it kindly, annoying.

Obviously, this 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 cruelty in the world, we should take note of this.

Similarly, many people go back to eating animals because they find 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 cruelty, 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.

For all the bad news leading off this presentation, there is a great deal of hope and opportunity out there.

A number of surveys have discovered a shocking willingness among the general population to reduce meat consumption.

And if we are going to really help animals, rather than police our club, we can reach these people with an honest, realistic message that actually has a profound impact for animals...

... reducing and eliminating consumption of chickens.

How can we best do this?

These graphs from the Humane League Labs shows that of the advocacy tools available to us, movies, conversations, websites, and online video have proven to be the most impactful.

That conversation is so powerful shows just how important it is that we be positive, effective spokespeople in our daily lives.

I know this is a lot to process in only a few minutes.

But it is truly wonderful that 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 favorite quote from Gene Baur.

Even while building the world’s leading farm animal sanctuary, Gene was looking ahead to what will be necessary to make sure that one day, sanctuaries will no longer be needed. We have to go upstream and end the demand for animal products.

And finally a quick note as to why this work 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 quibbles.

But we need to realize that our work is a matter of gravest consequences for animals. Recognizing this actually changed my worldview, away from being right to being maximally effective.

We cannot do everything. This is why I strive to know all the facts and make sure my efforts to have the greatest possible impact. Of everything I could be doing, I want to choose the option that reduces the most suffering. I hope you agree, and that this information is useful. Thank you.

For ways to put this info into action, please visit 


Unknown said...

Absolutely brilliant! Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Wow. Thank you for this. I had never seen those charts/graphs before. I just posted on FB a suggestion to my friends to *try* some Gardein chicken or Beyond Chicken. Hopefully someone will try it out.

Unknown said...

Eye opening. Thank you, Mr. Ball!

Valerie Wangnet said...

This is one of the most important things I've read since becoming an activist. Thank you for putting this together.
Best wishes, Valerie.

Rosemary Lowe said...

As a Plant-based eater for about 25 yrs now, I do not use the word "Vegan." It generally turns people off, and I have had too many negative experiences with "Purist Vegans" who think that once you become "Vegan" nothing else matters--I have heard this simple minded thinking far too much. Veganism has become another religion, a far as I'm concerned, and it does not address the multitude of other planetary crises facing all living beings. Being Vegan is not, and it is not Activism. Of course, a Plant-based diet is what we all should do, but we must also be involved in saving native wild lands and wildlife, among other things.

Matt Ball said...

If anyone wants to act on this, please see:

Ari said...

While reading this piece, a big YES came through my heart to a recent page request made for a donation matching opportunity. Thank you Matt for matching the compassion in your heart with wisdom in your mind. Together they are a powerful force!

Matt Ball said...

Thank you so much for your commitment to maximum impact advocacy, Ari, rather than simply going with what is most popular!

Groucho said...

Nice sales pitch for somebody interested in making a buck.

Matt Ball said...

Always glad to hear from people concerned with my financial well-being.

Unknown said...

Are you serious? This is complete gibberish. All this nonsense does nothing in changing people's views on animals. Only vegan education will do that. Check out

Matt Ball said...

Facts and graphs -- gibberish!

Unknown said...

I doubt the abolitionist will see the logic haha I bet Gary must sell more book franciwhatever is rallying his band of merry trolls as you speak. Nice piece btw

Joseph T. Espinosa said...

It can be very disturbing to have our delusions disrupted by facts about the change process and the revelation that the world has not changed in the way we want as quickly as we want. Harm reduction work is more in line with the way most people (including most of us) change through time, incrementally. Fortunately, after having advocated for animals amongst several million meat eaters over the past 23 years, I can report that most meat eaters do not have such tantrumic reactions to the suggestion that they have been deceived, Typically such angry reactions to new information come out when there is little evidence in support of the held position and thus the person clings ever more tightly to their believed mantra, as it is very scary to let go of comforting delusions. Those interested in taking up work that pays attention to what we know about the change process and promises to spare large numbers of animals should join us.

JT said...

Thanks a lot! Really resonated with me in many ways. I think many vegans get caught up in "winning" discussions and proving the other person "wrong"... including me up until recently.

Hestia said...

I think this post was great. As someone who is 95 percent vegan, I want to encourage others, not turn them away for being imperfect. Getting this far into plant based eating was gradual for me and my family, and I want to allow others the time and space for becoming enlightened that I had. If people feel judged and criticized, they will be turned off and turn away. If we show them that we are all on this path together, if we acknowledge this was a gradual opening of mind and heart for us, too, then they will have a realistic example of how becoming a plant based eater can happen. If someone criticized me for not being 100 percent vegan, I would feel bad....and the point is, I am working every day to help others eat less meat. I think that is a worthy effort. And I also think it is pretty darn good that I am 95 percent vegan, considering the meat and dairy culture I was raised in. Giving myself a little pat on the back.

Diane said...

Great info, thank you, am sharing this widely.

Anonymous said...

Yes, it seems this way to me too! Good on you for the realisation and shift JT.

Anonymous said...

Yeah good on you Hestia! And I agree, super useful information.