Wednesday, July 12, 2017

What Should We Make of India's Cow Protection Movement?

"[O]n April 21, 2017, in the Jammu region of Jammu and Kashmir state, a mob brutally attacked five members of a nomad cattle-herding family, including a 9-year-old girl, on suspicion that they were taking their cows for slaughter. A video posted on social media showed a group of men chanting slogans commonly used by BJP supporters, breaking down the family’s shelter, beating an elderly man with rods and sticks even as women begged for mercy, and finally setting the shelter on fire."

This episode is the latest in a trend sweeping India of "cow protection" that has won praise and accolades from some animal advocates, from up and down my newsfeed, and from Leonardo DiCaprio. The tide has swept high enough that India recently banned the sale of cows for slaughter. It's now reached the point at which the movement turns to violence, high on its own success.

What should animal rights activists make of this movement? The turn to violence is something to oppose given studies on 60s urban riots, French labor movements, and civil resistance more broadly. The campaign also deserves condemnation as an instance of Hindu nationalism and anti-Muslim bigotry (not all that different from the alliance between some European animal advocates and anti-Muslim forces).

What should we make, though, of the campaign's impact on animals, as well as campaigns to, say, tax cow flesh because of its impact on climate change?

Many animal advocates are inclined to praise such achievements as incremental changes that lead down the path to protection for all animals. I think this view is flawed. While I'm inclined to look at the path of history as bending toward justice, that does not mean that any policy change necessarily does so. To know whether a policy change will have the right effect, we should think of the way it affects political forces at play in shaping policy.

In this sense, "cow protection" has a few effects relevant to animals:

1) It satisfies the forces pushing for cow protection or a cow flesh ban. In India's case, this is primarily Hindus, although American environmentalists have provided support as well. By satisfying these forces, those forces will be less willing to advocate for a broader policy that includes the goal of banning cow flesh in the future.

(In India's case that may not be this concerning, as an alliance with Islamophobic nationalists is probably not an appropriate move for animal advocates, but with environmentalists this should be a serious concern.)

2) It sets a cultural signal - although this could go both ways. It says that banning animal products acceptable, which can make other bans more plausible, but it also says that cows are a particularly bad animal to exploit, which actually goes against what we should do based on the sheer numbers of animals exploited.

3) It leads to people eating fewer or no cows and eating chickens, fishes, and pigs instead. Given that a "serving" of chicken, fish, or pig flesh contains far more suffering than a serving of cow flesh, this means more suffering and death by more animals. Perhaps because of environmentalist arguments against eating cows, American cow consumption seems far more troubled than American chicken consumption.

By my assessment, the longer-term picture is bleak, although slightly ambiguous, and the short-term picture is less ambiguously bad. Given that, animal advocates should not support the cow protection movement.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Trump's Supreme Court Nominee May Be the Most Important Thing Trump Does to Animals

Trump Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch on a fishing expedition with Antonin Scalia
As much as Trump promises to empower the most extreme voices on civil rights, LGBTQ rights, and immigration, animal advocates have long had good reason to fear the Trump administration. Trump's ties to notorious ag empresarios and persecutors of activists from Forrest Lucas of Protect the Harvest to Bruce Rastetter of "ag gag" fame give cause for worry. Despite this all, potentially the most important - that is, damaging - nomination for animals is Trump's Supreme Court pick, Neil Gorsuch.

Why the Supreme Court? The Supreme Court touches on all sorts of issues - LGBTQ+ and women's rights, voting rights, civil liberties, federalism, etc. - but when has it ever played a major role in animal rights? How could we even predict how a Supreme Court nominee would rule?

Trump with nominee Neil Gorsuch
The thing to note is that while nominations, personal ties, regulations, and even laws come and go, it takes a much longer time for a Supreme Court nominee to come and go. At 49, Gorsuch is the youngest nominee to the court in 25 years. He will likely be on the court for 30 years at least - and possibly up to 40 given his health and excellent healthcare. The question is not what cases are before the court today, but what cases will be before the court in the next 30 - or 40 years.

Based on the answers I've heard from leaders of our own movement, most of us think we will achieve something close to animal liberation, or at least the end of factory farming, in that timeframe. This is not just DxE; at a panel at last year's Effective Altruism Global x in Boston, Bruce Friedrich of the Good Food Institute, Jon Camp of The Humane League, and Sharon Nunez Gough of Animal Equality all offered a similar timeline. Add to this that there has not been a major movement for the rights of an oppressed class - not civil rights, women's rights, children's rights, disability rights, or LGBTQ+ rights - that avoided the court, and it becomes exceedingly likely that our movement will have a vital, life-and-death (or rather life-and-mass murder) case under Justice Gorsuch and anyone else nominated any time soon.

What sorts of cases might come before the court? There are an array of possibilities, and there likely will be an array of cases, but here are two:

A screenshot from "Unlocking the Cage"
-Cases regarding the legal standing of animals and rights owed to animals under pre-existing laws. The Nonhuman Rights Project, should it succeed in getting lower state courts to grant nonhuman animals limited rights and legal personhood, will likely see repeated appeals and could very well make it to the U.S. Supreme Court. Indeed, that seems like a necessary step to get the sort of sweeping precedent NhRP would like. Down the road, one could imagine ideas previously seen as ridiculous - like PETA's case against orca slavery under the 13th amendment or a case for equal protection under the 14th amendment - come before the court. Courts are often critical to the protection of groups with less political power from a tyrannical majority. Who has less political power than nonhuman animals?

-Cases regarding the degree to which regulations at both the federal and state level can stand. The Supreme Court has a lousy track record here, having struck down a California animal welfare law, saying that it was pre-empted by a weak federal law, the Federal Meat Inspection Act. In a unanimous ruling, conservatives achieved their anti-regulatory goals and liberals achieved their goal of strengthening the federal government all at the expense of animals, which neither side currently cares about. Hopefully the court's liberals will start to care about animals more as time goes on, but the more conservative the court is to start, the more difficult the climb will be.

There are other types of cases we likely can't imagine that may surprise us, and the best way to prepare for unforeseen cases is to have the best people on the court possible.

Given that we know next to nothing about Gorsuch's views specific to animals and basically never know anything about a nominee's specific views on the matter before they are confirmed, how are we to judge?

Well, despite all the talk in the animal rights movement about how animal rights and other progressive views do not imply each other and vice versa, it's generally true that the more progressive someone is, the more supportive they'll be of animal rights. Groups like HSUS argue that animal rights is a nonpartisan issue while others point out that many animal rights activists are xenophobic, Islamophobic, racist, or sexist.

The truth is that while these both may be true, progressives and people who identify as Democrats tend to be more supportive of animal rights. Animal rights shares an intellectual kinship with progressive values, particularly the sorts of progressive values held most deeply by those trained in reason and logic, i.e. lawyers and judges. So while liberals on the court are failing animals, there's a lot more hope that they'll come around. Another conservative on the court, on the other hand, is a very bad thing for animals - for decades and decades.

Update: Another point worth noting is that Gorsuch has critiqued Peter Singer's utilitarian philosophy at length on the topic of euthanasia. This is yet more reason to think that Gorsuch will be unsympathetic to animal advocates. Thanks to Harrison Nathan for pointing this out.
Want to take action? Call 202-224-3121 and ask to be put through to the Senator for your state. Tell them to filibuster the nomination of Neil Gorsuch.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Vox's Piece Against Bill Gates's Chicken Donation Misses A Major Externality

Economist Chris Blattman (a Principal Investigator where I work, Innovations for Poverty Action) writes an on-point criticism of Bill Gates's push for donating chickens at Vox, but he misses a major cost. It's a cost that many of the forefathers of modern welfare economics, like Jeremy Bentham and John Stewart Mill noted well ahead of their time. The cost is the lifelong suffering and complete obliteration of individuals - chickens - who possess all the morally relevant characteristics of economic agents for welfare economists to consider them.

There are many reasons why economists ignore animal suffering when analyzing agriculture. One is likely simple speciesism. There's a deeper set of reasons that I think make economists ignore animal suffering, though, and they show how far modern economics has strayed from its roots in many ways. The reasons start with this: a refusal to make a "moral" judgment.

The basic premise of modern welfare economics is that there is no way to compare how well-off two people are (what's called an interpersonal comparison of utility). This belief stems from mid-20th century economist Lionel Robbins. Of course, the belief is absurd on its face: the idea that there is no way to compare the happiness of a poor Nigerian family with an American billionaire is ridiculous. Economists have leaped from the idea that there is no way to prove or know that the billionaire is better off to the idea that there is no way to have high confidence.

In practice, few economists believe what is taught as a premise in Econ 101. Professor Blattman and just about every economist I've worked with at IPA is in that field precisely because of a belief that people in poor countries are worse off than most people in wealthy countries. Just about every measure of overall economic well-being, like GDP or the poverty rate, lumps an imperfect measure of people's well-being together and assumes that well-being is in fact comparable.

The residue of the idea that you can't compare well-being, though, sticks around, and the complete exclusion of animals from economic calculations is its most radical implication. From the perspective of an economist, a dog or a chimpanzee is no different from a chair. This flies in the face of scientific consensus. The scientific consensus is hardly revolutionary: from Greco-Roman to Judeo-Christian to Buddhist to Hindu thought, the view that animals deserve moral consideration is ancient. The scientists merely confirmed what we all could have presumed.

Interestingly, the reasons to care about animals in economics extend even further: many animals have the characteristics of an economic agent. There's an entire field of animal welfare science that, while it is still rife with bias and support for hurting animals, takes as its basic assumption that animals express preferences, an assumption that economists know as the weak axiom of revealed preference in the human case. Neurological studies of what goes on in animals' brains when they make these choices suggest that this is accurate: where we have measured it, animals' reward and decision-making systems parallel humans' brains when making decisions.

In light of these findings, it is indefensible to classify animals in the same category as furniture in economic analysis. If we do that, then the costs of a program like Bill Gates' stack up immediately. Chickens are generally killed as babies at a fraction of their age. In poor countries like those where he will give these chickens, animals are often slowly hacked to pieces when it comes time for slaughter. Before their death, as anyone who's walked the streets in a developing country will know, birds are confined in wire cages little better than American battery cages (something Bill Gates himself is working to combat).

If that's not enough, though, think about this: at a time when industrialized countries are realizing the toll of factory farming, the giant animal suffering factories of America and Europe are desperately seeking to expand in developing countries. What better way to spread the idea of mass animal product consumption than teaching people to raise chickens? Gates is condemning not just the chickens he distributes but generations of chickens beyond them to lives of misery.

All this suffering is not worth $5 per bird, and that's the optimistic estimate of a chicken "donation" program's effectiveness.
We can quibble about the human costs and benefits of a program like Gates', but the animal cost is glaring.

Professor Blattman writes of some imaginary Gates advisor, "They sold you on the benefits, and didn't tell you how much it all costs." When it comes to animals, the same could be true for anyone who's studied economics and agriculture. When it comes to animal agriculture, economists have been sold on the human benefits but neglect the animal costs.

Friday, January 6, 2017

2016 Was a Good Year and a Bad Year for Humanity, Depending on How You Count It

Though the end of 2016 was greeted by most people I know with a sigh of relief and by pundits as being the end of a very bad year, people who look carefully at the evidence on social trends have been pushing back. Economist Max Roser and representatives of Innovations for Poverty Action (where I work part-time) both recently wrote columns in the Washington Post about why 2016 was, in fact, a great year for humanity. Worldwide poverty continued its massive decline, and there was no great increase in violence despite what people seem to think, leaving us still far ahead of humanity and pretty much any time in the past when it comes to the likelihood of dying a violent death, as psychologist Steven Pinker chronicles in the Better Angels of Our Nature and a more recent interview. All in all, humanity is likely doing better now than we were a year ago, in a continuation of an ongoing trend.

Odd, though, that so many people think things are so bad. At the end of 2015 there was a similar debate following the rise of ISIS (which has continued), the Ebola outbreak (which has largely been tackled), and so on. In 2015, I was inclined to agree with the view that the year had actually been a good one without reservations, but in 2016 I can't. What seems to be going on in many of these conversations is that the public looks at how much violence they see, and the public says, "too much." Then, academics look at how the amount of violence is changing and say, "but it's getting so much less bad!" The unanswered question is whether that change is likely to continue or revert: are things continuing to get better at the same rate, and does it look likely that this will continue to happen, or not? On that metric, I think 2016 was probably a very bad year.
Was 2016 like this...?
...Or like this?  
The rise of nationalist populism in the West, including Brexit, Trump, Italy's referendum, and more, is a marked change, as far as I can see, from the past several decades at least. Not only is it a marked change, though - it's a change from basically all the good trends that have led to a striking decline in violence over the course of human history (again, see Steven Pinker). It's a shift away from international cooperation toward narrow tribalism, away from norms against violence to norms increasingly accepting of it, away from feminism and ideals of equality toward hyper-masculinity and seductive hierarchy, and a shift away from any patina of economic reasoning toward instinct-driven policy.

Now, there are optimistic signs outside of rich Western countries - from Estonia to Ghana - but there are also countries like Brazil and the Philippines whose leaders make Trump seem like a wise statesman.

Worse than anything, though, is that the current trends seem to increase the probability of black swans - rare, catastrophic events with the ability to destroy or inflict misery on vast numbers of people and that books like The Better Angels of Our Nature probably don't quite account for. Trump seems determined to make nuclear war more likely and put exactly the right people around him to make it happen. His team's indifference to climate change in the face of overwhelming evidence does not bode well for other technical risks like an extremely harmful artificial intelligence or nano- or biotechnology run amok.

A few bad leaders is well below the norm for world history, but the increase in leaders bad in such particularly meaningful ways is cause for concern. 2016 may have been a good year for humanity in terms of sheer improvements, but it also brought signs that we might get a lot fewer improvements - and maybe some catastrophic steps backward - in the years ahead. To me, that's what's most striking - and terrifying - about 2016.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Why I Work on Institutional Change at Home but Not Abroad

When the movement termed “effective altruism” started, one of the major currents was the movement in economic development toward conducting what are termed randomized controlled trials (RCTs) for poverty alleviation programs. A randomized evaluation is the way the FDA tests new drugs before they go on the market: a treatment is randomly provided to some of a given collection of individuals but not to others. Because the treatment is allocated randomly, there should not be any systematic differences between those who get it and those who don’t. So all sufficiently large differences between treatment and control should be due to the treatment and you can estimate, without any bias (in an ideal case) the effect of the treatment.

This is very different from the way many studies are done: longitudinal studies in medicine (which are usually how doctors get initial looks at the differences between different diets) suffer from selection bias: people who drink are likely to differ from people who don’t drink in ways that don’t have to do directly with drinking, so differences between them can’t be attributed to the effect of drinking alcohol.

When I was a sophomore in college, I stumbled into a lecture by the economist I now work for, Dean Karlan, on the use of randomized controlled trials (RCTs) in economic development. I was inspired and excited. I’d always looked for ways to good with my life, and as a math nerd I was delighted to find a way to do good using numbers. I was also convinced: it seemed obvious to me that given the choice between doing something an RCT shows works and something that doesn’t, you should obviously do the former – and the difference could be so big that doing more RCTs was vital.

I’m still convinced, but I’m also aware of the drawbacks of focusing too narrowly RCTs and think they are quite large in the case of the animal rights movement. See, there are some things where an RCT doesn’t make sense. If you’re testing whether a malaria pill indeed prevents malaria in those who receive it, an RCT is a great idea. If instead you are trying to lobby government ministers, an RCT may not work.

You might be able to draw up a list of government ministers large enough to randomize among them depending on who you’re targeting, but if it’s just one or two, it won't work. Even if there are hundreds of relevant officials, if the lobbying effort is high-risk, high-reward – that is, if winning over one out of every 1000 ministers is enough to make it worthwhile – then an RCT probably won’t do the trick.

What I also left out is that even the RCT on the malaria pill will miss whatever we don’t measure. If, for instance, distributing a malaria pill leads government ministers to become complacent and stop supporting government anti-malaria programs that do far more good, we won’t pick that up.

So the natural limitation of RCT is that we can't use them to study interventions that are sufficiently high-risk, high-reward or where there is only a very small number of relevant individuals. Plus, we can miss effects that extend beyond the individuals studied and the measurements we took on them.

Given so, many people have criticized RCTs on the grounds that they result in tunnel vision that ignores institutional factors (I think this is the best such collection). I don’t think it’s fair to denounce RCTs as inaccurate or a bad way of studying the same things that had previously been studied in less-rigorous ways, but I think these arguments do get something right on the meta level: if RCTs are all we do or very close to all we do, then we will probably miss a lot of things.

I've become more sympathetic to institutional approaches to global poverty than I used to be. Many of my experiences in Ghana (and in Peru a few years back) made this more concrete for me. A banker I spoke to there went on a several-minute monologue about how many problems the lack of a national ID system creates. People can have four different IDs, and they can easily register for each one with a different name, making them extremely difficult for banks and the government to track. This has more costs than you would realize.

There are also softer, less visible institutions than government IDs that can have outsized effects, like education or even general expectations of drivers. I would probably have $50 more in my wallet if I did not point out mistakes on bills there that were in my favor. Meals are almost always under $10 in Ghana so that gives you a sense of how large and common these mistakes are.

Education, health, and many other institutions stack up in many ways to create what economists call transaction costs – what are essentially little taxes on everything you do that lead to less getting done.

Institutions may very well be an important driver of poverty, but the reason I'm somewhat skeptical of focusing on the more complicated among them is that they entail complex design issues for Westerners. The history of outsiders trying institutional change is spotty. That’s not to say it’s hopeless. Yet in general, it seems to me we’re not great at sophisticated design questions for developing countries that have much to do with local cultures and local politics, so we should focus on softer institutions or on supporting people in developing countries with the resources to fix institutions themselves. RCTs do give examples of how to affect some of these softer institutions, like education and healthcare. So I generally tend toward wanting to support those.

In the case of animal rights, I think the dynamic is very different. Though animal rights activists in the U.S. are a rarefied bunch – largely white, more educated than average, quite a bit more left-wing than average, and a lot more likely to be atheists – we are still more able to get a pulse on the culture we are working with and the design questions here.

(On a parallel note to the question of institutional design in other countries, the animal rights movement would probably be pragmatic to focus on elevating voices in specific marginalized communities to advocate there rather than sending outsiders in to advocate.)

There are a few other differences, I would say, with animal rights. One is that I’m somewhat pessimistic on the ability to change people’s minds enough on an individual level to be able to get a good reading of that. Public opinion change seems to come in spurts, making social change in general a high-risk, high-reward strategy. The literature on persuasion and advertising suggest that persuading individuals on their own is very, very hard to do. RCTs done by animal rights groups suggest that this is true as well in the case of the animal rights. I think it’s unlikely we can get sufficient power for an RCT to pick up much persuasion from anything in activists’ toolkits. (I would love to be proven wrong!)

On another note, I think there is more of a path forward for institutional change in the case of animal rights than in the case of global poverty. Of course, that’s not to say we lack any understanding of how to change the institutions that make a country rich or poor. Most of the issues, though, are again complex design questions about how to make a country’s leaders pay attention to the right things – questions that are especially vexing for outsiders.

My sense, though, is that there is a pretty powerful consensus that building a nonviolent protest movement can be highly effective. I've been reading histories of various social movements - not just civil rights and gay rights but things with varying track records like environmentalism, prohibition, and disability rights. It's hard to come away without thinking that movements rise and fall based on their extent of grassroots mobilization. There are issues with external validity and other questions about all of their work, but Erica Chenoweth, Sydney Tarrow, Doug McAdam and many other social scientists seem to concur that a densely connected and confrontational movement is highly effective for changing institutions. The counterargument seems to be a body of psychological literature showing that people get upset when they're confronted, but nobody ever denied this. The claim instead is that in the complex system of civil society a number of other mechanisms overwhelm that effect. Of the history of social movements I've read so far that's the conclusion I've come away with, though I'm working on reading more.

Of course, this is not an RCT – history is biased in many ways, as are disciplines like sociology that depend on it when looking at historical examples. We all look far more at successful movements than failed ones Moreover, even if we had literature on both varieties, we wouldn’t know for certain whether differences in tactics are actually responsible for differences in outcomes or the result of some outside force – say, that once a movement gains popular support it succeeds more and people start protesting more, without any relation between the two.

The careful historian can deal with this issue in ways that minimize it, though. Looking at the mechanics of a movement – not just when did protests happen and when did specific changes happen but how specific actors responded to each other in a more fine-grained way – can shed a bit more light on this. Quasi-experimental methods that simulate an experiment, while rare, can also help. If comparing movements while holding certain factors constant yields the same insight repeatedly, that’s also suggestive that there’s something going on. I can’t remember which sassy Facebook friend of mine said it, but while it’s true that correlation does not imply causation, it’s also true that correlation correlates with causation.

All of that is to say that yes, I think we have some sense of how to do institutional change for animal rights. I think we need more of a sense (and maybe some RCTs would work here, although I’ve had a hard time thinking of good proposals) of exactly what best mobilizes activists, pressures institutions, and triggers public controversies. But I think domestic change for the rights of an oppressed group involves a very different approach from work on global poverty.

Two final notes:

      1)    I’m a bit uncomfortable with the term “outsider,” though I use it repeatedly for lack of a better term. I don’t think there is ever an inherent moral difference between what we see as insiders and outsiders to communities, and I think breaking down those walls is an important task. I think that’s a task best started by those in positions of power though.

      2)    I think there are institutional changes that may be more effective than RCTs for Westerners interested in global poverty to work on, but they are likely changes to Western institutions that affect the global poor. In particular, loosening border restrictions comes to mind, which would have an extremely beneficial effect.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

The Meat Investor Problem

This is the third in a three part series on poverty and veganism/animal rights that I’ve been writing.

My friend Scott Weathers wrote a post recently on “the poor meat eater problem,” wherein people who want to address global poverty but are anti-speciesist have to deal with the worry that their money will hurt a great number of animals. Today I want to turn to a different problem: for many people in developing countries, “purchasing” an animal is a form of investment when savings are difficult to come by and an important business decision. There’s also evidence that this helps boost people’s income, particularly when coupled with other goods (full disclosure: I work at Innovations for Poverty Action, which did the linked-to study). Nearly every survey of poverty in developing countries asks, in a disinterested way, whether somebody owns “livestock”, which type, and how much.

I struggle with this a lot. Part of it is probably good old-fashioned cognitive dissonance. Part of it is probably not wanting to think that one good thing (helping someone in severe poverty develop a stable income) can come at the cost of another (dozens of animals killed in frequently horrifically botched slaughter), or vice versa. I’ve tried not to think about it, but being in Ghana since becoming an activist for animals (and while doing a tiny bit of activism over the web) has forced me to come to terms with this dilemma.

I’ve come to the terms with recognizing that promoting the ownership of livestock, even for those in severe poverty, is wrong and I think this conclusion should be less controversial than it likely would be (even among my supportive colleagues, I would guess). It's wrong because of the basic cogency of anti-speciesism. I'm not going to explain that; for that argument see here. I do want to explain why the idea of restricting anti-poverty policies in this way is more controversial than it should be.

There are two ways in which I think speciesism makes people have a generally insurmountable knee-jerk reaction against the idea of rejecting using animals when it will actually help people. The first is that it frames the window through which we see the world and potential solutions to poverty. The second is that it dramatically affects our calculation of the benefits.

First, the window: when we look at policies to address poverty, we don’t look at every policy, though we may not notice the ones we exclude. For instance, I don’t think many Western economists would look at ways to experiment with the use of child labor and how it can increase farm productivity, even though it probably could indeed do that. I also doubt anyone would study the effect of slavery (or sexual slavery) on productivity (at least in an experimental way) on poor businesses in developing countries. Nobody would study a drug known to be toxic to one class of humans that could still affect their household. Even with animals, nobody would study the effect of what is commonly accepted as aberrant animal abuse on productivity.

That is all to say that the norms we accept frame the set of actions we consider to address a problem, though it’s often invisible. So when someone says that it’s wrong to not consider providing “livestock” to alleviate poverty, they are really saying that not using “livestock” is not a norm worth following the way that, say, not using child labor is. That is, they are begging the question: a question that I think Singer and others have answered decisively.

Second, the benefits: even once we decide what policies to consider, speciesism frames the benefits from that policy that we include in our consideration. Fifty years ago, an economist might have neglected female income or treated female wellbeing in a very different way. A hundred fifty years ago, an economist would have all sorts of paternalistic views of nonwhite people that would skew the way they considered benefits to them. An economist might also have viewed children’s desire not to work as a matter of temper tantrums and neglect the harms to a child involved in child labor.

Today, economists generally consider the interests of all the humans affected by a policy. But where animals’ interests are affected, there is no plausible moral case not to consider animals as well.

A few years ago, I was torn between focusing on global poverty and focusing on animal liberation. I’m increasingly persuaded that animal liberation – the question that affects the vast majority of the mammals and birds on this planet and could determine the future of the planet’s wild animals – is the question where I should spend my time. I think it’s reasonable to disagree, though, depending on how one ways certainty of evidence or the importance of human development for the far future.

It seems pretty clear to me, though, that there isn’t a good case for addressing poverty by using animals. One of the most vital questions of the twenty-first century may be whether developing countries develop the hellish animal death camps that exist in the U.S., Europe, and parts of Asia. Let’s not play a role in making that happen.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Where Are All These People Who Need to Eat Meat to Survive?

This is the second of a three part series I’m writing on veganism and global poverty.

As an animal liberationist you often have people ask you: What do you say to people in developing countries who need meat to survive? Note that you only get this question in the U.S. and Europe. I've never gotten it here.

After getting this question all these times, I can't help but ask myself now: Where are all these people who need to eat meat to survive? Well, basically, they aren't.

Groundnut (peanut) soup with fufu.
I’ve probably lived in two of the more difficult developing countries to live in as a vegan. In the more rural parts of Peru, the places to eat are generally chicken joints, and in Ghana, meals are almost always a chicken or fish-based soup with some sort of carb ball (maize, grains, potato, yam). Both countries have absorbed the Abrahamic faiths that are particularly anti-animal in their typical manifestations.

Look around, though, and you can almost always find conscientious objectors. Further south in Ghana many Rastafarians are vegan and have integrated something approaching anti-speciesism into their way of life. In Peru, there’s a Christian community I encountered known as the Society of Alpha and Omega that also rejects animal exploitation and ran at least one restaurant in each of three rural towns I lived in.

Now as I said there aren't many Rastafarians where I am and there's only one Ghanaian vegan I've met in the north (my friend Square de Med, thanks to the wonders of Facebook). It's the same country, though, and cuisine spreads. Beans, lentils, soy chunks, a bean cake known as tubani, rice balls, a couscous-like dish made from yam skins and other grain dishes are regularly in the market. That's not to say they're easy or reliable to find, but you can find them.

Okay, so what does this all tell us? A few things.

First, when people in rich countries object that anti-speciesism is unfair to poor people they are being unintentionally patronizing. Poor people in Ghana do have choices just like people in the U.S.A. Not as many choices, and not as easy, but they make choices nonetheless and they never have this question because they do not see themselves as empty vessels of suffering.

Second, this objection to anti-speciesism rests on a mistaken view of culture. It sees cultures as fixed, immutable things deserving of being respected and left untouched. This is an assumption that seems to be claimed in the U.S. mostly in the case of justifying oppression (e.g. requiring clerks to marry gay couples violates the local Christian culture). Export it abroad and suddenly you’re standing up for the marginalized.

As in the U.S., though, cultures change in developing countries too. Not only do they change – they aren’t monoliths! As Will Kymlicka and Sue Donaldson beautifully describe in Zoopolis, nearly every culture in human history contains a school of thought denigrating animals, and nearly every culture also contains a school of thought profoundly elevating them. That's exactly what I've seen here.

Third, there's a distinction between needing meat to survive and having a hard time doing without meat, and the latter sheds some interesting light on basic moral ideas. As I said, I think there are very few people who need meat in order to survive. There are many cases though where it's difficult to do without. Access to nutritional knowledge is lacking in general here in Northern Ghana, and vegan nutrition is going to be even rarer. Given the way typical meals are constructed, being vegan is going to require a great shift in your life.

In this sense, though, it wouldn't be all that different being vegan here from being vegan in the United States - certainly in urban areas with less access to fresh produce but also in general for people who grow up with a Western diet. Note though that I don't think many of us believe that the fact that something is difficult to do means that it isn't the right thing to do.

Tubani, made from ground beans.
Instead, when something - not paying to have animals hurt - is the right thing to do but still difficult in many contexts, it requires us to recognize that good or normal people can sometimes do very bad things, and to try to change those conditions. It requires us to recognize that there is a difference between a person and their actions. On my reading of the Milgram experiments and other studies of obedience to authority, many of us would do downright horrific things in the wrong context. 

So what can we do? We can change the context. We can separate actions from persons and love everyone even as we advocate for change. We can empower the conscientious objectors who are there and remind Westerners that there are these conscientious objectors and that they're a lot more common than people who need meat to survive.