The Role of Individual Consumption Decisions in Animal Welfare and Climate are Analogous

post by Gabriel Weil · 2022-06-10T06:18:54.670Z · EA · GW · 31 comments

Contents

  Disclosure/Disclaimer/Epistemic Status
  What should be done about this?
  Other objections and responses
None
31 comments

Disclosure/Disclaimer/Epistemic Status

In my current day job I am a climate policy analyst, though I am in the process of transitioning and will be a law professor by the time with context is judged. The views expressed in this essay are my own and do not necessarily reflect those of any current, past, or future employer.

I am an expert in climate law and policy and am much more confident about my claims in the domain than I am about my claims regarding animal welfare. That said, my claims about animal welfare are mostly applications of basic economic reasoning, so I am still reasonably confident about them. I am least confident that the asymmetry that I am criticizing actually exists. My impression is certainly that EAs, both individually and acting through EA organizations, put more emphasis on individual consumption, relative to policy/tech change, in the animal welfare domain than in the climate domain, but this is difficult to verify empirically. I do quote a survey of EAs reporting that 46% of EAs claim to be personally vegetarian or vegan, but personal climate-related consumption is less legible and I was unable to locate comparable data. This is especially problematic since what I criticize is mostly actual EA practice, not the public messaging of organizations like 80,000 hours that do emphasize policy and technology change. 

 

The Role of Individual Consumption Decisions in Animal Welfare and Climate are Analogous
 

While formal EA statements and guidance in both animal welfare and climate change (in my view, rightly) focus primarily on policy and other systemic changes, it is my observation that the EA community (both individually and in institutional behavior) tends to emphasize individual consumption behavior more in the animal welfare context. For instance, many EAs (46% according to this survey) are personally vegetarian or vegan, and many EA events only serve vegan food. By contrast, EAs tend not to focus as much on decreasing their personal carbon footprints, and EA events don’t typically forego air conditioning on hot days or make other sacrifices comparable to serving vegan meals. This essay argues that this difference in emphasis is largely unjustified.

Let’s get one important point out of the way at the start. This essay is NOT about the relative importance of climate change mitigation and animal welfare. Differences in the importance of these two cause areas could justify differences in the total amount of EA effort in these two domains, but wouldn’t justify a different allocation of effort between individual consumption decisions and structural/policy change. 

What it is about is the basic structure of the two problems. Consider the standard arguments against focussing on individual consumption choices as a solution to climate change. 

  1. Any individual’s emissions, even in rich countries, is a drop in the bucket. Reducing your personal carbon footprint to zero will not have an appreciable effect on global temperatures. 
  2. Even the reduction in your personal emissions overstates your impact because your reduction in demand for carbon-intensive goods and services makes them cheaper for others, which will lead some to increase their consumption. 
  3. You could offset your annual emissions at a much lower cost than you could the monetary and nonmonetary cost of directly eliminating your personal emissions.
  4. A focus on personal consumption emissions is a poor substitute for policy change, clean energy technology investment, and other higher-leverage actions. Sometimes, this argument takes the form that oil companies invented the idea of a personal carbon footprint to distract you from policy change. 

 

Do you notice anything about these arguments? That’s right, they all apply, with essentially the same force, to personal efforts to reduce or eliminate consumption of meat, dairy, and eggs on animal welfare grounds. Let’s go through them one by one.

  1. Any individual’s consumption of meat, dairy, and eggs, even in rich countries, is a drop in the bucket. Reducing your personal consumption of any products will not have an appreciable impact on aggregate animal suffering.

One might object that declining to eat meat at least saves the specific animals from suffering, whereas an incremental reduction in carbon emissions will have no detectable impact on the climate. This apparent distinction rests on two reasoning errors. First, a reduction in meat consumption and a reduction in GHG emissions are analogous outputs in terms of animal welfare/climate change mitigation effort. All climate change mitigation (as opposed to adaptation or geoengineering) efforts, whether they act via individual consumption or other channels, will cash out in terms of emissions, which will then only have probabilistic impacts in terms of actual outcomes of interests, including reduced harms to people and ecosystems. Thus, any difference in the level of individual consumption effort that is justified for the two cause areas on this basis would also apply to other channels of influence. Second, statistical harms are nonetheless real harms worth caring about. In expectation, reducing your personal emissions does produce real social benefits, even if the beneficiaries are unidentifiable. Also, it’s worth noting that, in most cases, declining to consume meat or other animal products also does not spare an identifiable animal from suffering. This brings us to point 2.
 

2. Even the reduction in your personal meat consumption overstates your impact because your reduction in demand for meat makes them cheaper for others, which will lead some to increase in their consumption. 

Actually, an even stronger argument can be made here. In the typical case of meat consumption, the animal suffering has already occurred by the time the consumer is deciding whether to buy or otherwise claim the product. In some cases, such as a party, a fixed quantity of meat has already been prepared and some may simply be discarded if it is not all consumed. When a vegetarian or vegan declines to consume meat, the idea is that their demand reduction will cause the equilibrium quantity of meat to go down. That is, grocery stores and restaurants and dining halls and party hosts will purchase less meat because their estimate of how much the fend consumers want will fall. This reasoning is fine as far as it goes in a statistical sense, though any one person choosing to eat beans instead of a burger may not change the equilibrium quantity at all. In this sense, reducing meat consumption is analogous to reducing one's consumption of grid electricity, which is similarly produced (with any associated carbon emissions) before the customer decides to consume it. It is different from the consumption of automobile gasoline, heating oil or gas, use of a natural gas stove, or use of fuel in an onsite generator, which all directly produce emissions as they are consumed. In such cases, declining to consume them does directly reduce emissions. Nonetheless, in both cases, markets will generally equilibrate such that the expected impacts of reduced consumption are broadly analogous. There is no particular reason to think that the shape of the supply and demand curves for meat and emissions-intensive goods and services differ systematically such that the net reduction in global consumption will fall more short of the gross reduction in personal consumption in one domain than the other.

One might respond that vegetarians and vegans can hope to influence others’ behavior via social contagion, so the benefit is greater than the gross quantity of meat they avoid eating. But, of course, climate hawks could make the same arguments for reductions in their personal carbon footprints, and many do. There’s no particular reason to think that this works better for animal welfare than for climate change. If anything, my impression is that many people dislike vegetarians and vegans precisely because they feel implicitly judged by them. While there may be an analogous phenomenon for people with low carbon footprints, I haven’t seen any evidence for it.

 

3. You could offset your personal consumption of meat and other animal products at a much lower cost than you could the monetary and nonmonetary cost of directly eliminating your personal animal product consumption.

I think this is pretty self-explanatory. There are issues with offsetting in both domains, but the cases are broadly analogous. As Scott Alexander points out, you can donate to a group advocating for cage-free eggs or even to an ad campaign to convince other people to become vegetarian or vegan just as easily as you can give money to a climate policy advocacy organization or buy carbon offsets. Sure, you might be skeptical of Jeff Kaufman and Brian Tomasik’s claim that about $10 to $50 is enough to make one person become vegetarian for one year, but there is plenty of reason to doubt that cheap carbon offsets actually represent emissions reductions or negative emissions that are permanent, additional, non-leaking, and not double-counted. 
 

4. A focus on personal consumption emissions is a poor substitute for policy change, investment in meat/dairy/egg alternatives, and other higher-leverage actions. 

One might argue that personal abstention from meat-eating is complementary to and reinforces activism, but of course, this exact argument can be and is made for personal climate-related consumption. They hold with roughly equal force in both cases. 
 

I said at the outset that this isn’t an argument about the importance of the two cause areas. To be sure, you could justify making more personal consumption effort in one domain if you thought it was more important. That is, it might be worth taking relatively cost-ineffective measures to tackle a really important problem, but not a less important one. Still, I don’t think this quite lines up with the general EA view and practice regarding the role of consumption choices in these two domains. 

After all, the strongest EA argument against putting more resources into climate change mitigated is that it scores low on neglectedness, relative to other EA cause areas like animal welfare. This is probably true with regard to policy, technology, and other large-scale changes. The money spent on climate change mitigation dwarfs that spent on animal welfare. The same goes for the number of people devoting their careers to animal welfare vs. climate change. 

It’s harder to assess the relative neglectedness in terms of personal consumption decisions. Globally, there are an estimated 79 million vegans (about 1% of the global population) and about 1.1 billion vegetarians (almost 14% of the global population). It’s more difficult to measure the number of people who make analogous changes in their personal consumption patterns to reduce their carbon footprint, though of course reducing or eliminating consumption of animal products is one the most straightforward ways to reduce the GHG emissions intensity of your consumption.

In any case, it’s not really clear that the neglectedness criterion really applies to personal consumption choices, since there are unlikely to be the same diminishing marginal returns to reduced demand for meat or dirty energy as there are for money or human capital investments in more systematic approaches like policy change. If anything, you might expect increasing marginal returns to reductions in meat/dirty energy consumption since, as the pool of meat/dirty energy consumers.

The upshot of this analysis is that the relative non-neglectedness of non-personal consumption-based climate action actually somewhat means that personal consumption interventions should be at less of a disadvantage as compared to policy advocacy, etc., given the lack of diminishing marginal returns.

Reasonable people can disagree about the relative tractability of animal welfare and climate change, but it’s hard to see how tractability considerations could fundamentally alter the basic thrust of this essay.

 

What should be done about this? 

Should EAs reduce their emphasis on personal meat/dairy/egg consumption? Should they increase their emphasis on their personal carbon footprint? 

I think the answer is probably a bit of both. At the very least, it would probably be helpful for EA messaging to make it clear that you can be an EA in good standing if you eat meat, just as you can be an EA in good standing if you use air conditioning, drive a car, or fly on planes. Similarly, EAs shouldn’t go crazy trying to minimize their carbon footprints, but some marginal sacrifices in terms of comfort and convenience to reduce emissions are warranted. For example, EAs could roughly try to shift their consumption bundle to what it would be if carbon emissions were priced to internalize their full social cost.

 

Other objections and responses

  1. Changes in personal consumption decisions could, in principle and if universalized, completely solve the animal welfare problem. They could not completely solve climate change.

I don’t think this is quite right. Depending on the scope of what’s classified as “personal consumption decisions” and what we mean by “in principle” either both of these problems could be substantially solved by changes in individual consumption or neither could. Of course, 100% of people going vegan (in the absence of comparably affordable, palatable, and healthful substitutes for meat and other animal products) or refusing to consume any goods or services with associated greenhouse gas emissions (again, in the absence of comparably affordable, convenient, and comfortable zero-emissions alternatives) do not represent realistic pathways for solving animal welfare and climate change. But if everyone in the world did stop buying and consuming meat and other animal products, the factory farming industry would collapse in fairly short order. Many purchases of animal products are made by institutions, including governments, that might not be directly responsive to market forces, however. So it would probably take some significant political action and other forms of advocacy to eliminate meat purchases by non-individuals. If everyone in the world were personally on board with veganism, this advocacy would presumably be pretty easy, but it would still have to happen. Similarly, if people refused to consume any goods or services that were associated with net-positive greenhouse gas emissions, then those industries would rapidly decarbonize or go out of business. To be sure, the governments and other institutions buy concrete, steel, electricity, and other carbon-intensive goods, and some advocacy would be required to get them to stop doing so, but this advocacy would be fairly straightforward in a world where everyone is committed to eliminating their personal carbon footprint. 

 

2. From Robi Rahman: “A person choosing to eat 1kg less chicken results in 0.6 kg less expected chicken produced in the long run, which averts 20 days of chicken suffering. A comparable sacrifice would be to turn off your air conditioning for 3 days, which in expectation reduces future global warming by 10^(-14) °C and reduces suffering by zero.”

Without quibbling with the precise numbers, I think this is fundamentally a point about the importance of the two cause areas. Climate change, by its nature, has diffuse and difficult-to-predict-with-precision impacts. This is true of both individual consumption decisions and of larger-scale policy and technology interventions. In the animal welfare context, it may be difficult to point to the specific chicken whose suffering was avoided (in part because the typical “beneficiary” will be a chicken that is never born, but also because it’s really hard to identify even which farm will decrease its output in response to any particular consumption decision), but it’s still fairly easy to imagine specific, in principle-identifiable suffering that is avoided. As I argue above, however, diffuse statistical expectation of harm is nonetheless real harm. One might also claim that climate change mitigation has a staircase-shaped function, with a zero derivative on the scale of individual contributions. But even if this is the correct model of the shape of the emissions abatement-suffering curve, you never know whether your marginal emissions are going to be ones that tip us over the next step, causing large harms. In expectation, your marginal emissions cause about as much harm as they would if the curve were smooth. In any case, the same goes for meat consumption under most circumstances. Costco doesn’t adjust their orders of hot dogs or rotisserie chickens on 1-unit increments, so odds are that your declining to buy either will have no effect of their meat purchases. On average, of course, this all washes out, but the same is true in the climate context. And even if you disagree with the foregoing analysis, that’s perhaps a reason to decrease overall investment in climate change as a cause area, not specifically to decrease the emphasis on individual consumption.

 

3. Also from Robi Rahman: “I can reduce my contribution to farmed animal suffering by 90% by giving up chicken, or 99% by switching from an omnivorous diet to a vegetarian diet [with no eggs]. Conversely, there's no practical way to reduce my contribution to climate change by that fraction (I'd have to give up all electricity and live as a forager in the woods), much less avert my share of climate-related harms.”

It’s true that it would be harder to substantially eliminate your personal gross carbon footprint than it is to substantially eliminate your personal negative impact on animal welfare. Even this statement has caveats though, as human construction of roads, buildings, and other infrastructure often displaces wild animals and plausibly causes significant animal suffering. It would be less straightforward for EAs to eliminate this impact. In any case, this argument doesn’t bear much on the marginal efforts that EA could make to reduce their carbon footprints. Just because it wouldn’t pass a cost-benefit test to try to bring your personal gross emissions down to zero doesn’t mean there aren’t useful things you could be doing to mitigate the harm caused by your consumption choices. My individual donations aren’t going to eliminate malaria deaths, but that doesn’t mean that the marginal contribution that my donations make is not worth it. It’s hard to see why one’s practical inability to substantially eliminate their personal carbon footprint means that they shouldn’t take personal steps to abate their emissions when doing so would produce net social benefits. 


4. Vegetarianism/veganism is a simple rule to follow, that doesn’t require a lot of mental effort to figure out the full inclusive welfare costs and benefits of each consumption decision. No analogous “bright line” action is available for personal consumption in the climate domain.

This seems right up to a point. It is hard to know the carbon footprint of every product you consume and it would be much more difficult, just as a practical matter, to fully eliminate your personal carbon footprint (in terms of gross emissions) than to go vegan. That said, there are some fairly straightforward steps everyone can take to reduce their personal greenhouse gas emissions. Walking or biking for regular commuting instead of driving a car greatly reduces personal emissions in a straightforward way. Getting a programmable thermostat and setting it not to run when you know you will be out is also straightforward and clearly passes a cost-benefit test. In some areas, you can get one for free by participating in a demand management program that downcycles your air conditioning during times of peak demand, when incremental energy is generally both the most expensive and most carbon-intensive. If you own your roof, you can put solar panels on it are largely decarbonize your electricity consumption. Of course, you can also avoid air travel when possible, and reduce your meat and dairy consumption. This latter channel partially aligns with animal welfare, but also diverges inasmuch as beef consumption is much more greenhouse gas-intensive than chicken, but chicken consumption is much worse from an animal welfare perspective. Going vegetarian or vegan resolves the dilemma, but this is a greater personal sacrifice, at least for some people. 


 

31 comments

Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by andrew_richardson · 2022-06-10T15:12:29.675Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I don't think the math checks out here. I do a quick cost benefit analysis here, and meat vs. climate interventions don't seem like comparable orders of magnitude to me. Not eating meat appears to be a much more cost effective sacrifice. 

(Math: Responding to Robi's comparison between not eating 1kg chicken (meat for 3 days) vs not using AC for 3 days. I'm not sure where the 10^(-14) °C number came from, but let's assume it draws ~1,000 watts, or about ~100,000 watt-hours/3days. US power generation apparently produces about 0.85 pounds of CO2 emissions per kWh, so that's 85 pounds of carbon. At about 2 trillion tons of carbon per degree Celcius, that is indeed about 10^(-14) °C of warming.)

Given a value of 10^8 deaths per degree of warming (notes [EA · GW]), this comparison implicitly values human to chicken lives at about 1,000,000 : 1. (10^-6 = 10^8 * 10^-14) (1 chicken produces ~1kg meat)

Reasonable EAs disagree, but I guess I value chickens at more like a 10,000:1 ratio to humans, especially given how much suffering factory farming entails. Given that not eating meat for 3 days and not having AC for 3 days feel like comparably small hardships, the impact of not eating meat seems to be about 100 times higher for the same cost. 

This sort of cost-benefit analysis makes me feel like personal sacrifices for the climate are not very high value compared to veganism. 

Are there personal climate sacrifices that are more worthwhile than this, or is this line of reasoning incorrect somehow? 

Replies from: Gabriel Weil
comment by Gabriel Weil · 2022-06-14T23:11:28.144Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I'm not sure this is a fair comparison if what you want is an apples-to-apples comparative cost-effectiveness analysis. Not eating chicken is the lowest-hanging fruit in terms of personal sacrifice for animal welfare. Switching from eating beef to beans for 3 days would give you orders of magnitude less bang for sacrifice in animal welfare terms. Conversely, going without AC is hardly the most cost-effective personal sacrifice for climate change mitigation. For that, I'd pick something like biking to work instead of driving (the magnitude of the sacrifice is going to vary a lot from person to person; I really like biking, so it's not much of a sacrifice to me) or taking a train instead of flying, when the latter would be more convenient. 

It also seems strange to only count the mortality costs of climate change. This seems especially striking given that my understanding is that it isn't really the mortality that's the core issue in farm animal welfare since the relevant counterfactual in the going-vegan scenario is fewer farm animals being born, to begin with. 

Finally, I just want to emphasize that I'm really trying to bracket the question of cause importance. I really don't feel like I have a handle on how much negative welfare a chicken on a factory farm experiences. Climate damages are somewhat easier to value, but there is still a pretty wide dispersal in estimates of the social cost of carbon. However, I think you can take my core point on board regardless of your view on the relative importance of the two causes. That is, the role of the contributions that individuals can make to solving each problem are roughly analogous. Now, maybe you think that farm animal welfare is just so much more important as a cause area than climate change mitigation that it justifies the discrepancy in EA behavior, but then it's at least worth being explicit about that. Given that low neglectedness is the main factor typically cited by EAs for emphasizing climate change and that there are not significant diminishing marginal returns (on the extensive margin) to individual sacrifice, that itself would require an update in what I understand to be the EA consensus. 

comment by Onni Aarne (Onni_Aarne) · 2022-06-10T13:59:45.355Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Epistemic status: Some kind of fuzzy but important-feeling arguments

If one steps away from a very narrowly utilitarian perspective, I think the two are importantly disanalogous in a few ways, such that paying more attention to individual consumption of (factory farmed) animal products is justified.

The two are disanalogous from an offsetting perspective: Eating (factory farmed) animal products relatively directly results in an increase in animal suffering, and there is nothing that you can do to "undo" that suffering, even if you can "offset" it by donating to animal advocacy orgs. By contrast, if you cause some emissions and then pay for that amount of CO2 to be directly captured from the atmosphere, you've not harmed a single being. (Sure, there might be problems with real-world offsetting, but it's at least possible in principle.)

I also think the two cases are disanalogous in terms of moral seriousness (h/t MHarris for bringing up the term in another comment.)

Relatedly to the offsetting point, while factory farming is in and of itself morally wrong, there is nothing intrinsically wrong about emitting CO2. The harmfulness of those emissions is only a contingent fact that depends on other's emissions, the realities of the climate, and whether you later act to offset your emissions. Doing something that is much less obviously and necessarily wrong doesn't indicate moral unseriousness as much as something that is much more obviously and necessarily wrong.

Consuming factory farmed animal products also indicates moral unseriousness much more strongly because it is so extremely cheap to reduce animal suffering by making slightly different choices . Often the only cost is that you have to make a change to your habits, and the food might subjectively taste a tiny bit worse. Refusing to make that tiny sacrifice seems very difficult to justify

By contrast, reducing emissions often means completely forgoing goods and services like flights, or paying significantly more for a more climate friendly version of something. Not wanting to suffer those inconveniences, especially when they negatively affect one's ability to do good in other ways, is much less obviously a sign of moral unseriousness.

As a bonus bit of meta feedback: While skimming it was a bit hard for me to find the key cruxes / claims you were making, i.e. the post could have been structured a bit more clearly. Putting a good set of linked key takeways at the top could have solved much of this problem (and still could!).

Replies from: robirahman
comment by Robi Rahman (robirahman) · 2022-06-10T15:48:31.543Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

The two are disanalogous from an offsetting perspective: Eating (factory farmed) animal products relatively directly results in an increase in animal suffering, and there is nothing that you can do to "undo" that suffering, even if you can "offset" it by donating to animal advocacy orgs. By contrast, if you cause some emissions and then pay for that amount of CO2 to be directly captured from the atmosphere, you've not harmed a single being.

This is only reasonable if you believe that causing x units of suffering and then preventing x units of suffering is worse than causing 0 suffering and allowing the other x units of suffering to continue. Actually, it's probably wrong even with that premise. Suppose Alice spends a day doing vegan advocacy, so that ten people who would have each eaten one hamburger don't eat them, but then she goes home and secretly eats ten hamburgers while no one is watching. Meanwhile, Brian leaves his air conditioner running while he's away from home, emitting 1 ton of CO2, then realizes his mistake, feels guilty, and buys 1 ton of carbon offsets. In either case, there's no more net harm than if both of them had done none of these actions, but according to your argument, Alice's behavior is worse than Brian's? Personally I consider these harms fungible and therefore Alice was net zero even if the hamburgers she ate came from a different cow than the ones the other people would've eaten.

Replies from: Onni_Aarne
comment by Onni Aarne (Onni_Aarne) · 2022-06-10T16:41:53.049Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Yes, that's the narrowly utilitarian perspective (on the current margin). My point was that if you mix in even a little bit of common sense moral reasoning and/or moral uncertainty, causing x harm and preventing x harm is obviously more wrong than staying uninvolved. (To make this very obvious, imagine if someone beat their spouse but then donated to an anti-domestic abuse charity to offset this.) I guess I should have made it clearer that I wasn't objecting to the utilitarian logic of it. But even from a purely utilitarian perspective, this matters because it can make a real difference to the optics of the behavior.

comment by Robi Rahman (robirahman) · 2022-06-10T15:30:57.385Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

[Objection] from Robi Rahman: “A person choosing to eat 1kg less chicken results in 0.6 kg less expected chicken produced in the long run, which averts 20 days of chicken suffering. A comparable sacrifice would be to turn off your air conditioning for 3 days, which in expectation reduces future global warming by 10^(-14) °C and reduces suffering by zero.”

Without quibbling with the precise numbers, I think this is fundamentally a point about the importance of the two cause areas.

Actually, what I meant was fundamentally not a point about the importance of either cause area. I think that even if total harms from climate are greater than total harms from factory farming, the marginal harm reduction from changing individual behavior on diet is probably greater than the marginal harm reduction from changing personal energy consumption. I still think you're right overall that individual action on animal welfare is over-emphasized relative to individual action on climate or political/technology interventions on animal welfare, but this is one possible justification for the behavior of a lot of EAs I've met who put lots of effort into changing their diet but none into reducing their energy usage.

comment by Stefan_Schubert · 2022-06-10T11:20:44.542Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Thanks, I think this was a thoughtful, sophisticated, and original essay. I think it's  unfortunate that insightful posts like this get downvoted on the EA Forum. Its current level of karma (relative to other posts on the forum) doesn't reflect its quality (relative to those other posts) accurately. (Prior to me strongly up-voting it, it had 7 karma and 8 votes.)

It suggests the karma system might need to be reformed - e.g. that people should be able to express dis-/agreement with the claims, and evaluation of the reasoning, separately (cf. LessWrong's new karma system).

Replies from: Charles He
comment by Charles He · 2022-06-10T15:18:00.063Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

It's not that sophisticated. 

The post uses rhetoric, sort of what I call "EA rhetoric" where lengthy writing and language and internal devices and internally consistent arguments gas up a point, while basic, logical points are left out, and their omission is concealed by the same length.

 

This essay is centered on the truth that a vegan diet "isn’t really quite EA" (in the sense of the "GiveWell, dollars for QALY aesthetic"). 

The reasons for EA vegan diet are subtle, related to the cause area and the fact that vegan diets are costly. I'm happy to do a ruthless takedown of the vegan EA diet, if there is demand.

Instead of understanding or discussing the reasons why EA choose this diet, which are interesting and important, it spends the rest of its time making arguments for climate change mitigation, constantly returning to this diet choice to justify itself.

Other things it does:

  • It bakes in and begs the question that climate change is similar to other EA causes—but it is not through the ITN framework that EAs use.
    • It lampshades this lack of argument by mentioning neglectedness, and then appealing to uncertainty, but that's not nearly enough treatment for this critical claim.
  • It does not mention that the two causes tend to be diametrically opposed on personal choice.
  • It’s not clear that all dietary change away from beef hasn’t been vastly harmful.
    • Someone below did the math here [EA · GW], and finds the value of personal choices lower for climate change by a factor of 100, even using weights on animals that probably can't be justified by the experiences.

 

Most EAAs do not want to spend time fighting or confronting left people because it’s net negative for instrumental or political reasons. 

It's net negative because of rhetoric like this, so propagating it is bad.

Replies from: Flodorner, Stefan_Schubert, Gabriel Weil
comment by Flodorner · 2022-06-29T16:20:12.924Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

While I also disagree with the top level post, this seems overly hostile.

comment by Stefan_Schubert · 2022-06-10T17:57:27.062Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

The reasons for EA vegan diet are subtle, related to the cause area and the fact that vegan diets are costly

Fwiw, another commentator, Onni Aarne, actually says the opposite - that a vegan diet is motivated because in part because it's not costly [EA(p) · GW(p)] (I'm not hereby saying they're right, or that you are).

Consuming factory farmed animal products also indicates moral unseriousness much more strongly because it is so extremely cheap to reduce animal suffering by making slightly different choices .

Replies from: robirahman, Charles He
comment by Robi Rahman (robirahman) · 2022-06-10T18:10:01.893Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

The specific points being made in those quotations aren't mutually exclusive. Onni Aarne is saying you can make very inexpensive adjustments to your diet that greatly reduce animal suffering, and Charles He is saying that EA events spend extra money on catering to satisfy the constraint of making it vegan. I think both claims are correct.

Replies from: Stefan_Schubert
comment by Stefan_Schubert · 2022-06-10T18:16:47.566Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I didn't interpret Charles He as talking about EA events spending extra money on catering, but about individuals adopting vegan diets.

Replies from: Charles He, robirahman
comment by Charles He · 2022-06-10T18:24:58.943Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Yes, that is what I meant.

RE: adopting a vegan diet being low cost (vegan being key to ensuring ending of the worst practices) is probably objectively wrong.

  • The evidence of dietary change efforts failing seems large (decades of conventional efforts, resulting with a flatline in total diet), and is large objective evidence against conventional animal welfare work (I’m unable to be more specific or name the specific practices and organizations involved, for net EV, “moral maze” sort of reasons).

  • In the otherwise unrelated EA forum discussions about “vultures”/defecting because of money, a common idea/narrative has been that “being vegan” is a powerful signal for altruism. This can’t be true if it’s easy.

Note that this belief about dietary change has not just been wrong but very costly to the actual cause.

This concrete and specific realization has been a large update for me against all leftist causes (as opposed to for ideological or political reasons).

At the same time, very small changes in diet can reduce suffering enormously. This truth is probably a key part a “ruthless” critique against EA vegan diets being effective (critiques which I do not fully agree with).

comment by Robi Rahman (robirahman) · 2022-06-10T19:14:26.402Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Sorry, yes, didn't mean to imply Charles He was only talking about catering. I was just using that as an example of EAs following vegan diets in a way that costs more money, as opposed to costlessly. This post by Jeff Kaufman is relevant, https://www.jefftk.com/p/two-kinds-of-vegan :

"Go vegan!", you hear, "it's cheaper, more environmentally sustainable, and just as healthy and delicious!" The problem is, these aren't all true at the same time.

comment by Charles He · 2022-06-10T18:56:59.048Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

This comment was at -3 before I strong upvoted.

Im not sure why that it is so but that is bad and may reflect some deterioration in norms (that maybe I’m contributing to?).

It’s think it’s good to argue ruthlessly but I avoid downvoting things I disagree with a lot of the time.

comment by Gabriel Weil · 2022-06-10T23:38:48.831Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

"It bakes in and begs the question that climate change is similar to other EA causes—but it is not through the ITN framework that EAs use."

I specifically tried to bracket the question of cause importance for a few reasons. I don't think I have any particular expertise or insight on how to value animal suffering. My core point about the similarity in the potential for impact via personal consumption choices in both domains is analytically distinct from the importance of the cause areas. And I didn't want agreement or disagreement with my post to hinge on readers own views about the relative importance of the two causes.

"It lampshades this lack of argument by mentioning neglectedness, and then appealing to uncertainty, but that's not nearly enough treatment for this critical claim."

I emphasized neglectedness this (though I did also briefly discuss importance and tractability, because  lack of neglectedness is typically the feature of climate change mitigation that EAs rely most heavily on in deprioritizing climate change relative to other cause areas. In light of that, I think it's important to note that (a) existing investments in climate change mitigation mostly do not come in the form of personal consumption decisions; and (b) there is little reason to expect diminishing marginal returns to more people taking some steps to minimize their carbon footprints (that is, on the extensive margin; on the intensive margin, or individual people making further investments in personal consumption decarbonization, decreasing marginal returns are to be expected). 

comment by Monica · 2022-06-10T20:44:44.645Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

This is an interesting post and I do think there is an underappreciated analogy, even if the effect size of each behavior is quite different.

One minor point: I very strongly encourage you not to adopt any concept of an "EA in good standing" based on how much good a person does and how effectively.

EA is a set of ideas and a movement. If we make it about a set of people, only some of who are "true EAs," it becomes at best a clique and at worst a cult. 

comment by Henry Howard · 2022-06-10T09:18:38.575Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Good point with the comparison to personal carbon footprints.

I think you're underestimating the value of "social contagion" as you call it (alternatively "role-modelling" or "normalising").  I became a vegetarian because vegetarians around me were making me question my beliefs and were showing me it was possible.  Also, I think people are very dismissive of opinions that feel are hypocritical. I think the animal welfare message loses a lot of power if it's not coming from a vegetarian/vegan or, even better, a large group of vegetarians/vegans

 

I question your economic analysis of meat-eating:

your reduction in demand for meat makes them cheaper for others, which will lead some to increase in their consumption...

Following this logic the amount of consumption of any given non-essential good would never change. If I refuse to buy seal fur then the amount of seal fur gets cheaper so someone else buys a little more. More likely there will be a net reduction in supply.

 

In some cases, such as a party, a fixed quantity of meat has already been prepared and some may simply be discarded if it is not all consumed

The "fixed quantity" is based on a prediction of how much meat will be needed at the party. If an organiser knows there will be vegetarians there, they'll probably order less salami.
 


My takeaway from this is that we should reduce our animal product consumption AND decrease our personal carbon footprint, primarily for the social contagion/normalising/non-hypocrite effect, secondarily for the drop-in-the-bucket direct effects.

Replies from: robirahman
comment by Robi Rahman (robirahman) · 2022-06-10T15:04:01.684Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I question your economic analysis of meat-eating:

your reduction in demand for meat makes them cheaper for others, which will lead some to increase in their consumption...

Following this logic the amount of consumption of any given non-essential good would never change.

You've misunderstood the line you quoted. It's only saying that other people's meat consumption will increase by some fraction of the amount you've reduced your consumption, not that people will increase their consumption by however much you reduce yours.

Replies from: Gabriel Weil
comment by Gabriel Weil · 2022-06-10T16:12:28.466Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Yep, I'm just saying that the equilibrium change in the quantity consumed will be less than the individual's foregone consumption, not that it will be zero. How much less depends on the elasticities of supply and demand. 

comment by MHarris · 2022-06-10T10:42:56.774Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I think, in general, personal consumption decisions should be thought in the context of moral seriousness (see Will MacAskill's comments in recent podcast).

Should we take seriously efforts to avoid unnecessary emissions? Yes! Is EA doing this? I'm not sure. My impression is that EAs are fairly likely to avoid unnecessary flights, take public transport etc - that's the attitude I take myself, anyway. This is less unusual than veganism - the thoughtful Londoners I'm surrounded by do the same. So I think it would be easy to underestimate the extent to which EAs do this, just because it's less noteworthy.

EAs also fly to conferences which have air conditioning. Is this worth it? Anecdotally, a lot of good seems to emerge from in-person conferences. And air-conditioning is important for thinking and learning. So I think we're probably in the right place here, but I'd be interested in a more detailed look at this question.

Should EAs reduce their emphasis on personal meat/dairy/egg consumption? Should they increase their emphasis on their personal carbon footprint? 

I think the answer is probably a bit of both.

I strongly doubt there is truly a trade-off here - I don't think veganism is an especially emphasised aspect of EA, and if there is a strong case for specific changes in personal emissions consumption, I think this could be advocated on its own merits and in addition to veganism.

comment by Brad West · 2022-06-10T06:56:31.596Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I agree. Commenting on the animal welfare side:

We should, as a community, encourage veganism but direct some attention to effective charities as well as an extremely conservative basis for meat-eaters to offset their negative impact on animal welfare. I think it would be worth developing a fund managed by people who study animal welfare and can best assess what organizations are, in expectation, going to have the best impact on the victims of factory farming. Then compute a conservative amount (which would probably depend a lot on how many chicken products one consumes) and encourage meat eaters (or vegans for that matter) to contribute some multiple of that to the fund.

If offsetting is easy, it could probably be sold to even many outside the EA community.

comment by Flodorner · 2022-06-29T16:31:08.308Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

There seems to be a clear disanalogy in that if every individual stopped eating meat tomorrow, factory farming would be history very quickly. On the other hand, if everyone tried very hard to reduce their personal CO2 consumption, the effect seems more limited (unless people are really serious about it, in which case this would probably lead to major economic damage). 
 

The key difference seems to be that CO2 emissions are embedded in our current societies and economies in such a deep way, that we can only get out via long-term investment into replacement infrastructure (such as renewables, electric cars, public transportation etc.), which is not necessarily influenced that strongly by individual consumption. On the other hand,  meat eating is exclusively about the sum of personal demand, even though measures to reduce supply via policy or decrease demand via investment into viable substitutes would still be highly valuable.  (I imagine that I might change my mind if this line of thought was convincingly refuted).

Replies from: Gabriel Weil
comment by Gabriel Weil · 2022-08-11T04:13:47.066Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I directly address this objection in the essay (it's the first if of my "other objections and responses"). Do you mind spelling out why you found this unconvincing?

comment by PaulCousens · 2022-06-13T01:32:20.092Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I recently told myself that I would never eat any animal product again, and I have been trying to buy things that are not made from animals or tested on animals. 

The main reason for my veganism is that I can have such a diet and not miss animal products at all, so why not? I am not certain/convinced of the impact of my lifestyle's decision. I do think if a significant number adopt such a lifestyle it would have a huge impact on factory farming.  My understanding is that, in other places, veganism is not as convenient/feasible as it is in the United States (where I live). However, the remedy for that doesn't seem that difficult to achieve to me. I imagine other countries' capacities for vegan lifestyles could easily be brought to the same level as the United States' capacity. 

I have not driven a car for the past few months. I plan to get a bicycle to get where I need to. (I have not had anywhere that I needed to go for the past few months.) Also, when I need to get somewhere farther, I plan to use some kind of public transportation like a train or bus. I even plan to avoid using planes if possible.

comment by MatthewDahlhausen · 2022-06-10T16:19:00.222Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I don't think 1) is correct - specificity matters in moral frameworks that aren't purely utilitarian. Consider two scenarios:

  1. I kill a chicken eat it, then offer to buy my neighbor a vegan lunch the next 3 days who would otherwise have gotten chicken.
  2. I release a canister of R22 into the atmosphere, then pay tradewater to acquire and destroy a canister's worth of R22 that would otherwise have been emitted.

In both cases you can say on net there was zero impact. But there is a clear sentient being harmed in one case and not the other. That distinction is similar to why people aren't okay with doctors killing a healthy patient and giving their organs to others, even if it on net saves lives. Put another way, it is possible to wholly offset one's emissions in a that has zero impact. The same can't be said for non-vegan diets.

Replies from: Gabriel Weil
comment by Gabriel Weil · 2022-06-10T17:38:43.292Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

In the typical case of meat-eating, the animal suffering has already happened by the time you choose to consume the product of it. At the point of consumption, there's nothing you can do to change that. Forgoing meat consumption merely reduces the expected future quantity of animal suffering. Paying someone else to reduce their meat consumption by an equivalent or greater amount does the same thing. 

comment by Matt_Sharp · 2022-06-10T11:46:59.511Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I think I broadly agree with the premise. However, whether this means EAs are not allocating their resources appropriately requires consideration of the marginal cost-effectiveness of:

  1. Policy/tech/campaigning related to climate
  2. Policy/tech/campaigning related to animals
  3. Individual consumption related to climate
  4. Individual consumption related to animals
  5. Everything else

Without discussing or knowing these, I don't think we can make good suggestions about how people should change their behaviour. 

It would be very surprising if any of 1-5 were equally cost-effective as another, so in practice we should expect to move resources from 4 of them towards the most cost-effective one.

You state:

"Should EAs reduce their emphasis on personal meat/dairy/egg consumption? Should they increase their emphasis on their personal carbon footprint? 

I think the answer is probably a bit of both"

You've given some tentative and considered qualitative reasons for this, but not really justified it based on data. It could be the case that both our personal animal consumption and personal carbon footprint matters even less than EAs currently think, or that both matter more, or one matters more and the other less. 

Given this, I think we absolutely do need to "quibble with the precise numbers".  If what Robi Rahman has written is even roughly accurate, then that implies the current emphasis on personal animal consumption  rather than carbon footprint is justified:

2. From Robi Rahman: “A person choosing to eat 1kg less chicken results in 0.6 kg less expected chicken produced in the long run, which averts 20 days of chicken suffering. A comparable sacrifice would be to turn off your air conditioning for 3 days, which in expectation reduces future global warming by 10^(-14) °C and reduces suffering by zero.”

In expectation the reduced suffering from climate change due to this change in behaviour would not be zero, but if it  was still extremely close to zero, then Robi's point holds. 

Of course, that doesn't address how both of these personal consumption decisions compare to supporting either of the policy/tech/campaigning options. For that we'd need further data.

Replies from: robirahman
comment by Robi Rahman (robirahman) · 2022-06-10T15:11:09.109Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

However, whether this means EAs are not allocating their resources appropriately requires consideration of the marginal cost-effectiveness of: [1, 2, 3, 4, 5]

Actually, it doesn't require knowing all of those! If you find that among two of those options, one is more cost-effective than the other, but resources are going to the less effective one, you already know the overall allocation is suboptimal (even though the optimal allocation is probably some entirely different option).

That's a main point of this essay, which I think is underappreciated throughout EA: we put more effort into reducing harms from dietary animal product consumption than can be justified on a consequentialist basis relative to how little we emphasize individual actions on climate change and policy/technological interventions for animal welfare.

Replies from: Matt_Sharp
comment by Matt_Sharp · 2022-06-10T15:35:05.094Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

We put more effort into reducing harms from dietary animal product consumption than can be justified on a consequentialist basis relative to how little we emphasize individual actions on climate change and policy/technological interventions for animal welfare

Based solely on Gabriel's essay, how do we know this? There are some thoughtful qualitative suggestions why this may be the case, but I would find it more convincing if there were quantitative estimates which backed up these suggestions.

Replies from: Charles He
comment by Charles He · 2022-06-10T15:53:55.863Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

From a dollars to welfare sense, the truth is that if EAs literally just donated the premium from vegan catering to any number of EAA charities and just ate pounds of hamburger instead, that would help more lives than the animals the EAs contributed to eating.

So hamburgers for animal welfare.

The above is stilted, and not the answer (but a longer ruthless takedown is possible).

I’m reluctant to actually show the numbers here, because the status quo has good reasons and I have to construct an essay using “EA rhetoric” to seat this properly.