avacyn's Shortform 2020-07-13T01:08:17.880Z


Comment by avacyn on Career Guide for Ending Factory Farming · 2021-05-28T00:33:44.733Z · EA · GW

In particular, there is a talent bottleneck for science and engineering roles.

As someone with experience hiring in the alternative protein sector, I have a few thoughts about this:

  • The current talent bottlenecks in the industry may not be a great guide for a young professional's career, at least in the alternative protein sector. Things in these industries change extremely quickly. Given that it could take 5+ years to get educated in one of these technical fields, the landscape by the time you finish your degree may look pretty different. Product improvement is a major focus now, but in the future I can see a major emphasis on policy (government funding for technical research can be a massive resource for public-good focused industries), management, operations, and marketing / PR (e.g. once the competition with conventional meat gets a bit dirtier).
  • In my experience, the talent bottleneck for food science is greater than for other technical fields. Plant-based, cultivated, and fermented alt-proteins all need food scientists, and the explosion in plant-based meat (which is 10x bigger than cultivated and fermented) has put a lot of strain on that labor market. I also think it may be somewhat faster to get trained in food science than in e.g. bioengineering.

Very thorough writeup :)

Comment by avacyn on Some Scattered Thoughts on Operations · 2021-01-06T22:15:02.130Z · EA · GW


Another possible difference between the startup world and the EA world is that startups have access to much stronger direct feedback loops than non-profits, i.e. trying to sell to customers and seeing what happens. This means that startups don't have to think through everything super carefully before executing.

Comment by avacyn on Some Scattered Thoughts on Operations · 2021-01-06T17:38:31.088Z · EA · GW

I remember being surprised by the differing mindsets about operations when I transitioned to being more involved in the tech startup world after already being involved in EA. In the startup world you often hear things like "Ideas are cheap; execution is everything" which likely leads to operations feeling less low status. This is a major contrast to the EA world where many are highly intellectual, and place a high value on ideas. Given that startups tend to have more skin in the game than non-profits, perhaps EA non-profits could benefit from shifting more towards this mindset.

Comment by avacyn on The Conflicted Omnivore · 2021-01-03T03:32:24.162Z · EA · GW

[Separating from my other comment, since it's a separate idea]

There's a fifth idea that  activists might consider when taking conflicted omnivores seriously, although it's a bit ickier. Activists may be able to take whatever feeling is underlying the answers to these polls, and combine it with peoples' general lack of education around factory farming, and garner broad support for something that seems much less radical than it is. For example, imagine a ballot initiative that aimed to "ban artificial insemination" in the dairy industry. Given polls like these, people may be inclined to support it, despite being unaware that it could cripple the dairy industry.

Comment by avacyn on The Conflicted Omnivore · 2021-01-03T03:22:02.218Z · EA · GW

Thank you for bringing attention to this phenomenon!  I've seen a number of polls like this now, which makes me confident that this isn't a fluke, and actually points to something extremely important for the movement. Another cool study from Psychology Today shows animal rights was the least controversial of six causes considered, including sustainability. 

It's a shame that in my experience, many activist are convinced that broader society doesn't care about animals at all.  I think this is a major sort of disillusionment and burnout in the movement. According to polls like this, there's an important way in which this mindset is misguided.

I've also thought a bit about why we haven't already abolished factory farms given polls like these. Adding on to the points you've already brought up:

  • Cass Sunstein has done some awesome work on how "societal beliefs" can be slow to change in response to changes in the beliefs of the individual in that society (I like this 80K podcast episode on it). This is a reason for optimism that we may see abrupt change in favor of animal rights in the future.
  • I think many people don't actually have "beliefs" about whether animals have rights / feel pain / are conscious, etc . Beliefs are an abstraction over ways they might act in various scenarios (the map is not the territory). People can answer polls like this yet still not have the ascribed belief, because in reality their answer is a different type of behavior (e.g.  an emotional response, signaling of group identity, etc). For me, this makes it less paradoxical how people can answer polls like this, yet still eat meat.
Comment by avacyn on What foundational science would help produce clean meat? · 2020-11-13T19:07:20.353Z · EA · GW

In the abstract, the highest impact scientific research you can do outside industry should focus on things that are important to long-term success, but are not necessary in the short term. 

Companies already have a strong incentive to find alternatives to the largest cost-drivers so that they can begin to produce regularly at smaller scales without going bankrupt. For example, companies are likely already working on alternatives to using the most expensive growth factors, since at current costs, they can make even small scale production cost-prohibitive.

However, the long term success of cultivated meat will require innovation and cost reduction across the entire value chain. Many of these innovations aren't important for the short-term goals of the industry, so will likely get pushed off until later. This is where academic research can currently provide value.

One great candidate for this is developing ways to create dirt-cheap basal media from plants, e.g. using hydrolysates. Currently, basal media components are all sourced separately, and are often produced in inefficient ways. For example, individual amino acids are often produced via fermentation and then combined in a single media formulation. This is a much less efficient process compared to current meat production, where amino acids are sourced from soybeans and fed to animals. In the long term, it's likely that cultivated meat will need to move to a system where the main basal media components are grown via agriculture as opposed to biotech. However, it's likely difficult for companies to justify spending a lot of time on this, since basal media is not currently a major cost driver.

Comment by avacyn on avacyn's Shortform · 2020-07-13T01:08:18.170Z · EA · GW

Wayne Hsiung, the co-founder of Direct Action Everywhere (DxE) is running for mayor of Berkeley:

He's running on a left-leaning platform that doesn't explicitly discuss animals, but he will likely focus on animal-friendly policies. For example, he wants to create a "solar powered, pedestrian-only, and plant-based Green District."

DxE has been fairly controversial in the animal advocacy world, but setting aside questions of their particular tactics, having someone so animal friendly in government could be very impactful. I just donated $50 to the campaign, which is the maximum individual donation.

Does anyone know much about Berkeley politics, and if it seems like he has a shot at winning?

Comment by avacyn on Animal Advocacy Careers advice · 2020-07-06T17:55:18.579Z · EA · GW

I'm a big fan of what you're trying to do! It could be very impactful.

However, I notice that your advice seems to be greatly skewed towards non-profits. For example, in your M&L overview, you don't spend much time on food tech as a potential application of M&L skills. You also don't give any information on the skill gaps currently facing plant-based / cultivated meat. I think this is a missed opportunity, as the gaps in those industry are important, and could be well suited for people who aren't a good fit for management, fundraising, or advocacy.

Is this a purposeful decision? Are you planning to augment this later?

Thanks for all of your work :)

Comment by avacyn on How Much Do Wild Animals Suffer? A Foundational Result on the Question is Wrong. · 2019-06-29T21:56:41.706Z · EA · GW

I'm thankful for this discussion. Previously, I was under the impression that most people who looked deeply into WAS concluded that there was definitely net suffering. However, now it's clear to me this isn't the case.

Brian - I'm wondering if you've explained elsewhere exactly what you mean by "extreme, unbearable suffering can't be outweighed by other organism-moments experiencing pleasure." Is this an expression of negative utilitarianism, or just the empirical claim that current organisms have greater suffering capacity than pleasure capacity?

I am a total hedonic utilitarian, and not negative leaning at all, so I'm wondering what conclusion this philosophical position would lead to, given all the empirical considerations.

Comment by avacyn on [deleted post] 2019-06-04T20:50:31.303Z

Since most of the responders here are defending x-risk reduction, I wanted to chime in and say that I think your argument is far from ludicrous and is in-fact why I don't prioritize x-risk reduction, even as a total utilitarian.

The main reason it's difficult for me to be on board with pro-x-risk-reduction arguments is that much of it seems to rely on projections about what might happen in the future, which seems very prone to miss important considerations. For example, saying that WAS will be trivially easy to solve once we have an aligned AI, or saying that the future is more likely to be optimized for value rather than disvalue, both seem overconfident and speculative (even if you can give some plausible sounding arguments).

If I were more comfortable with projections about what will happen in the far future, I'm still not sure I would end up favoring x-risk reduction. Take AI x-risk: it's possible that we have a truly aligned AI, or that we have a paperclip maximizer, but it's also possible that we have a powerful general AI whose values are not as badly misaligned as a paperclip maximizer's, but that are somehow dependent on the values of its creators. In this scenario, it seems crucially important to speed up the improvement of humanity's values.

I agree with Moses in that I much prefer a scenario where everything in our light cone is turned into paperclips to one e.g. where humans are wiped out due to some deadly pathogen, but other life continues to exist here and wherever else in the universe. This doesn't necessarily mean that I favor biorisk reduction over AI risk reduction, since AI risk reduction also has the favorable effect of making a remarkable outcome (aligned AI) more likely. I don't know which one I'd favor more all things considered.

Comment by avacyn on Is this a valid argument against clean meat? · 2019-05-18T18:54:49.227Z · EA · GW

I overall agree that the argument isn't enough to move the needle.

I'll just say that I think 90% is too high for people who don't care about about how much meat they consume. I think people's views on the issue are more complicated. I think there's a large group of people who have a general notion that eating meat is unfortunate, but don't reduce their consumption because it's not a thing for their ingroup, and also they bristle at the notion about someone else telling them what to do. Kind of similar to how lots of people think that their clothing is made unethically in sweat shops, but they buy it anyways.

If I had to choose a number of number of people who don't care how much meat they eat, it would be closer to 55%-60%.

Comment by avacyn on What is the Impact of Beyond Meat? · 2019-05-05T00:02:38.901Z · EA · GW

According to their S-1, in 2018 they sold a total of 11.8M pounds of their "fresh" products. A large majority of this was the Beyond Burger.

Given that 93% of retail consumers that purchased the Beyond Burger also purchased animal meat, I think we can assume a pretty high rate of counterfactual replacement of beef - let's say 75%.

That's a total of 8.9M pounds of beef displaced. Assuming a cow yields 490 pounds of beef, that's around 18 thousand cows spared in 2018. This is impressive!

However, I agree with zdgroff in that the majority of the impact of Beyond Meat is the expected future impact when they focus more on chicken, and in legitimizing the plant-based meat industry.

Comment by avacyn on Reasons to eat meat · 2019-04-24T05:25:11.669Z · EA · GW

I think that only makes sense if you're negative leaning, which I'm not. If you think that adding pleasurable lives is good, then you'd be taking a risk of *not* creating the net-positive cattle lives when you decided to eat tofu over beef.

To be clear, I'm not necessarily arguing that we should eat beef (I'm vegan), I just thought it would be useful to describe the arguments that I thought this post was going to make before I read it :).

Comment by avacyn on Reasons to eat meat · 2019-04-23T22:59:55.276Z · EA · GW

On a less satirical note, I think one strong argument in favor of eating meat is that beef cattle (esp. grass-fed) might have net positive lives. If this is true, then the utilitarian line is to 1) eat more beef to increase demand, 2) continue advocating for welfare reforms that will make cows' lives even more positive.

Beef cattle are different than e.g. factory farmed chicken in that they live a long time (around 3 years on average vs 6-7 weeks for broilers), and spend much of their lives grazing on stockers where they might have natural-ish lives.

Another argument in favor of eating beef is that it tends to lead to deforestation, which decreases total wild animal habitat, which one might think are worse than beef farms.

Comment by avacyn on Bounty: Guide To Switching From Farmed Fish To Wild-Caught Fish · 2019-03-02T05:32:44.593Z · EA · GW

It's not very clear how the WASR article you linked to in "whether eating more wild-caught fish is good or bad for fish" shows what you say it shows.

Can you briefly over the basic case for switching to wild caught fish? Is it just that wild caught fish tend to be predators?

Comment by avacyn on Will companies meet their animal welfare commitments? · 2019-02-01T21:31:22.817Z · EA · GW

I'm not sure if you're claiming that shaming based approaches haven't been used in the past for corporate welfare campaigns, but if you are, I don't thing this is accurate.

My impression is that advocacy groups pursue both "carrot" and "stick" strategies to pressure companies into adopting better welfare policies. I think CIWF falls more on the carrot side, but then if that doesn't work THL comes in with the stick. For example, THL's current campaign against McDonald's seems mostly shame based -

Given that carrot+stick approaches have worked to get initial commitments, it seems reasonable that similar approaches would work to enforce those commitments.

Comment by avacyn on Fish used as live bait by recreational fishermen · 2018-08-11T18:17:14.610Z · EA · GW

I would upvote this twice if I could! I follow EAA stuff pretty closely and I haven't heard this discussed before. However, it seems like a highly important, neglected, and tractable cause area. The most exciting part in my mind is that progress has already started in some countries and states, meaning that it could be very tractable.

I'd love to see a more detailed analysis of the counterfactuals. For example, what percentage of bait fish will be replaced by artificial baits vs animals? If you used worms or other animals as bait, would you have to use more bait, or would it be a 1-1 replacement?

I'd also love to see some analysis about how existing laws came to exist. Who lobbied for these policies? Were they easy to pass, or were they controversial?

This is a great example of the utility of the EA forum - well researched and actionable. I'll do what I can to make sure this is on the radar of others in EAA.

Comment by avacyn on Why not to rush to translate effective altruism into other languages · 2018-03-10T18:28:07.078Z · EA · GW

I found this article useful and convincing. Thanks for writing, Ben!

However, I was surprised to see that this has become one of the most upvoted posts of all time on the EA forum. I would expect an insightful and convincing post like this to get between 20 and 30 upvotes. I'm worried that I'm missing a more important takeaway. Can someone explain why this has been so positively received?

Comment by avacyn on Why I prioritize moral circle expansion over artificial intelligence alignment · 2018-02-21T20:52:48.111Z · EA · GW

This post is extremely valuable - thank you! You have caused me to reexamine my views about the expected value of the far future.

What do you think are the best levers for expanding the moral circle, besides donating to SI? Is there anything else outside of conventional EAA?

Comment by avacyn on What is Animal Farming in Rural Zambia Like? A Site Visit · 2018-02-20T15:54:48.011Z · EA · GW

Really interesting and worthwhile project!

People sometimes discuss whether poverty alleviation interventions are bad for animals because richer people eat more meat. Do you think your findings affect this discussion?

Comment by avacyn on Would it be a good idea to create a 'GiveWell' for U.S. charities? · 2018-02-05T23:00:50.059Z · EA · GW

Nice! I think it could be really valuable to create “GiveWell-style” charity evaluators for other areas. ACE started this off with animal charities, but I think some of the areas you listed could be good fits, as well as others e.g. biorisk/AI charities.

You mention this in the 5th benefit, but a major upside in my mind is incentivizing the space to place greater value in effectiveness and transparency. These effects could be far reaching and hard to quantify. You might see if ACE thinks this happened with animal advocacy because of their work.

There are potentially major benefits even if you fail:

  • You could gain valuable insights around starting such a venture, and around the focus area. This could be valuable both to you, and to the broader movement if you can distill it into a postmortem.
  • Starting an ambitious venture and failing can still be valuable career capital if you can show you hit certain milestones or can take away major lessons.

In general, I think you are overweighing the possible effects on EA / GiveWell. As the project grows you can decide how much explicit association you have with EA and GiveWell.

The biggest cost seems in my mind is the opportunity cost. Differences in cause areas can be pretty huge, so if you are working on a suboptimal cause, you might have a much lower impact.

Comment by avacyn on The almighty Hive will · 2018-01-28T20:03:54.265Z · EA · GW

Nice! I really like the idea of EAs getting ahead by coordinating in unconventional ways.

The ideas in "Building and EA social safety net" could be indirectly encouraged by just making EA a tighter community with more close friendships. I'm pretty happy giving an EA friend a 0-interest loan, but I'd be hesitant to do that for a random EA. By e.g. organizing social events where close friendships could form, more stuff like that would happen naturally. Letting these things happen naturally also makes them harder to exploit.

Comment by avacyn on Four Organizations EAs Should Fully Fund for 2018 · 2017-12-12T18:27:00.704Z · EA · GW

I think it’s valuable to research how we can improve the well-being of humans who suffer – perhaps even to the point of having net negative lives, but not necessarily

I agree with this. Just to expand a bit - wild elephants might generally have net positive lives, but there still might be worthwhile interventions, e.g. to ensures some number that would have been killed by predators instead die in their sleep. The most relevant question is not whether wild animals have net positive lives, but how much their welfare could be improved per dollar.