Monday, January 4, 2016

Big Numbers Hurt Animals, Revisited

One of my biggest regrets is that for years after I stopped eating animals, I would lapse into Carl Sagan mode and talk about "billions and billions" -- how many animals were killed for food each year, etc. It was only later that I realized that using big numbers was actually undermining my efforts to convince people to take a step to help animals.

This article by Scott and Paul Slovic discusses the issue in more detail. Excerpt:
How big do the numbers have to be for insensitivity to begin? Not very, it turns out. 
Consider the recent death of the Syrian child Aylan Kurdi when his family braved the choppy seas off the coast of Turkey. The image of Aylan lying face down on the beach captivated the world’s attention and even, in short order, resulted in refugee policy changes in countries as far away as the United States. But 14 Syrian children drowned in the Aegean Sea the next day. Did you notice? Did you care? 
And even 14 is much higher than necessary to desensitize us.... “Compassion fade” can occur when an incident involving a single person expands to as few as two people. 
Of course, this is a hard issue to deal with constructively, given that most people care more about and relate better to individual mammals, while the vast majority of factory-farmed animals are birds. But at the very least, we should stop talking about how many billions of animals are killed, and talk more about individual stories, and the brilliance of individual birds.

1 comment:

Christine said...

This post really resonated with me...while I didn't know his name at the time, I distinctly remember seeing that picture of the young boy lying on the beach. As I write this, in my mind I can still clearly see his red shirt...his blue pants...and his oh-so-small shoes...

You are right that relating to one person or animal is easy, whereas it's very easy to feel overwhelmed by large numbers, especially when they reach into the billions like they do for farmed animals.

I do still use large numbers when giving figures, but I try to keep it to instances when the person(s) I'm speaking to can relate somehow. For instance, if I've been speaking to someone for 30 minutes about factory farming issues, at the end I'll say something like, "In the 30 minutes we've been talking, half a million animals have been killed for food in the United States."

I don't even use the phrase "slaughtered for food" most of the time. I think "slaughtered" has a certain shock factor for the average person, and that has the tendency to overshadow the figure of "half a million" when the person hears it.

I'm hoping to make my first combined volunteeer-visit to a farmed animal sanctuary this year. I'm sure I'll return with lots of wonderful stories about the individual animals there to share. :)