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.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Climate Change is An Act of Theft



West Africa is famous for its power outages. It's known as the dumsur here in Ghana, where power goes on and off and on and off erratically, and it can seriously disrupt business. Apparently it's not just a West African thing though because the New York Times has a very depressing piece today on how early climate change is making days without water - and therefore no hydroelectric power, which is the main source of energy - far more common.

That's in addition to the heat factor - having been in Ghana during the hottest month, I can't imagine it being even worse. Given how intermittent the water is already, having less water and less power is unthinkable.

This brought me back to what I think is the best writing on climate change I've seen, though at six years old it's a bit outdated. Back in 2010, The New Republic had a back and forth between its in house critic Jim Manzi, a very intelligent conservative pundit arguing that it's not worth tackling climate change, and Bradford Plumer, an environmental writer now at Vox.

Manzi made the point that according to IPCC estimates, climate change will lower global GDP by about 3 percent by 2100 while instituting policies to prevent it will lower global GDP by 6 percent based on the best estimates. Now as I said the piece is outdated and the more recent news has suggested the toll of climate change will be greater and will come sooner than expected.

Still, the point still stands that action to prevent climate change would likely be at best neck-and-neck with the toll of climate change when you look at GDP, which adds up global wealth. Seems like a pretty persuasive case, no (if you just care about humans)?

Well the issue Plumer pointed out was this: that 3 percent will come much more from developing countries, the countries that can least afford it. "And as Nate Silver once noted, you could completely wipe out the poorest 81 nations in the world, with a total population of 2.8 billion, and the blow to global GDP would "only" be about 5 percent," Plumer notes.

While the penalties from climate change are accruing largely to the poorer countries, with this event in Zambia one of what are likely to be many more such episodes, the gains from climate change have accrued to the rich ones. Even as we hear stories about abnormally warm winters and all of their consequences (such as potential rises in crime), the U.S. is largely powered by coal, oil, and natural gas. Fossil fuels have underwritten industrialization and the creation of U.S. wealth.

This tragic news out of Zambia (and I believe Ghana, which is not under the spell of El Nino, is having a drought too) reminds me of what I concluded after reading the New Republic piece a few years back: the conventional narrative in U.S. politics around climate change is probably inaccurate. Progressives attack conservatives for being anti-science troglodytes who ignore our country's future at all of our peril.

While many conservatives are proudly "not scientists", the science may not actually be the issue. The issue may be a moral disagreement: it may be a question of whether we prioritize members of our own country (dramatically) or whether we care about all equally. If we care only about or strongly prioritize (human) Americans, it may actually make sense to do nothing about climate change, at least for the next century.

Ultimately, I think most of us do have a deep sense that there's something wrong in such dire inequality. To trigger that conscience, though, we need to talk head on about the crime being committed when U.S. legislators refuse to turn the light switch off occasionally at the expense of Zambia having any light to turn on at all.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Will Veganism Solve World Hunger? Maybe, But Not in The Way We Think



This is the first of a three part series I’m writing on global poverty and veganism. The second will talk about the question of people "eating meat to survive" and the third will discuss poverty alleviation programs that "invest" in animal property.

Global hunger has joined the list of reasons to go vegan. The reasoning seems to be this: in order to raise animals to kill and eat, we need to feed them. Because of the loss of energy when you go from one level of the food pyramid to the next, this involves a lot more food than it takes to directly feed humans. All of that food given to animals could instead be given to people starving around the world.

As I'll lay out at the end of the blog, there are some ways veganism (and animal liberation) might help with global hunger, but I don't think this direct reason holds up, at least for people in rich countries. 

The issue with global hunger is not that we don’t have enough food. It’s that we don’t have the food where we need it to be. To the extent it's about scarcity, it's about local scarcity. Veganism in communities facing severe hunger might help, but I don’t think that’s what people are talking about when they say veganism will solve world hunger. Veganism in the U.S. is not going to do much for rural Ghana.

Think about it this way: many people suffering from hunger are subsistence farmers. What they eat is largely a question of what they grow. If they trade locally, it’s a question of what they grow (to determine their purchasing power) and what other people grow near them.

If they can trade in a denser urban center or in an extreme case with a foreign country, then what people are eating in the United States might have some effect on them, but it’s small.

In fact, sometimes the distribution of food from the U.S. in developing countries has the opposite effect. Food aid is sometimes instead "food dumping," where developed countries distribute food at artificially low prices and exclude domestic farmers from the market, potentially exacerbating poverty. So again, freeing up more grains in the U.S. is unlikely to help. There’s also evidence that this aid sometimes increases conflict.

Now, I highly doubt veganism makes global hunger worse. The sad truth, though, is that it’s altogether unlikely to directly affect global hunger on its own.

There are ways the animal liberation movement can intersect with the global poverty movement. Weakening the American agricultural lobby might help both causes (a reason to push for institutional reforms rather than individual veganism). Though the extent of the connection is often exaggerated, the consensus seems to be that animal agriculture does exacerbate climate change, which will fall largely on the backs of poorer countries. 

And of course: there’s one thing that may link the two more than any other: morality. Fighting one injustice can open one up to actively fighting another. Vegans and vegetarians do tend to react more to human suffering and preference for meat is strongly linked to illiberal values. I think this is mostly because people who are already compassionate go vegan, but it’s weak suggestive evidence that there’s a connection between these varieties of compassion. Psychologist Steven Pinker makes a persuasive case in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature that human beings are susceptible to escalating reason and empathy, and the (irrefutable) ideas that animals' interests count and those of people living in other countries count are mutually reinforcing. If veganism helps address world hunger, it’s not going to be because of what we’re eating – it’s going to be because of why we’re eating it.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

A Question I Wrestle With At Night

As someone who has long been interested in ways to address the massive global disparity in economic wellbeing – nearly 1 billion people live onless than $1.90 a day, adjusted for purchasing power – I’ve struggled with the question of how to do this while avoiding the historical tendency of Westerners to use alleged afflictions as an excuse to control others.

This tendency is a favorite jab by aid critics: the most notable critic of development aid, economist Bill Easterly, titled his most famous book The White Man’s Burden. It’s a worry worth thinking about, seeing as some forms of aid today, notably food aid,  sometimes do advantage rich countries at the expense of poor ones.

There are a number of facets to this problem. For now, I want to deal with the micro-level question of whether and how poverty (which is actually a pretty difficult term to define) is an affliction.

Now on some level questioning whether poverty is bad (and how bad) may sound silly, and the issue is not poverty exactly: it’s how addressing poverty changes and to some degree may destroy a culture with many positive things to offer.  Many of the pictures charities give us in the West are focused on devastation: the starvation, the grueling labor necessary to lift one’s fortunes, the struggle with illness. When I have stayed in developing countries, I’ve been struck by the pictures that don’t get through: the festive camaraderie of a first birthday, children playing football outside (something increasingly rare in developed countries), the bustling markets filled with fresh fruits, veggies, and street food. 

Beyond that, there’s simply the fact that the culture in Ghana or Peru, especially the poorer parts that I’m familiar with, is vitally different from that in the United States. Though I may be biased, I think there’s more diversity of culture in the Global South than in higher-income countries, even considering richer Asian countries. Part of this is just the fact that development hastens globalization and also tends to involve Westernization, but it also speaks to a more inherent issue in development: the material capabilities you rely on shape what you do – they shape your culture. There’s no way alleviating poverty will happen without some loss of culture, a loss that may include far more than just aesthetic pleasures (though to be clear, it comes with gains as well).

Now I’m not one to say that we should let people suffer simply in order to preserve some culture. It seems paternalistic and fetishistic to say we will let someone be mired in poverty because of how cute their life is. The question for me is: are people really suffering, how badly, and will they genuinely be better off if Ghana becomes more like the U.S.? The question is not a moot one: if you came here (I did not, but I imagine some do) expecting to see people moaning in pain left and right in the streets like the way Uganda is portrayed in the Book of Mormon you would be surprised. My impression is that you see more happy faces here than on the streets of New York (perhaps not than San Francisco though).

Enough of how great things are here, though: there is suffering, but it’s suffering that’s nowhere near as constant and visible as we’re often led to believe it is. Surveys do show that poverty takes a dramatic toll on how happy people are with their lives. Were this in the context of a single country, you might think it was just a question of envy and despair at rich neighbors. These studies, though, compare different countries, and indeed poverty seems to hurt (after a certain level of wealth, though, money seems to stop mattering much).

So how does this happen even while you don’t see people so miserable when they walk around? Are people just hiding it? That actually may be part of it, but I don’t think it’s the key explanation. In fact, the issue seems to be that while poverty does not make people sad minute to minute, it leads to far more frequent and stressful obstacles (one aspect of this is described in Portfolios of the Poor).

A common illness can be crippling and impossible to treat with the money one has. A child is far more likely to die. The weather takes a regular toll on one’s business.

In the context of Ghana, I am a very rich man but I see bits and pieces of this – even in the second-biggest city in the country, the power and water are very inconsistent. In more rural areas, it’s often more common than not that there is no power. Built structures are much more affected by the weather.

So while most of the time I don’t notice the difference – while sitting at my computer under a fan I don’t constantly think “I’m in a developing country!” – there are frequent moments of stress, moments that are far more common and intense for people who are not rich here.

These occasionally stressful events do not just affect the moments where they happen. As Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir explain in their book Scarcity, moments like this frame the way you live. You have to constantly act around the lack of available water by using your water very strategically when it’s available, making interactions around water just a tad more stressful than they would be if it were available. These shifts in framing have profound effects.

People here want to not get malaria. They want their children to go to school more. They want more productive crops. As I’ll flesh out more in a future post, I think it’s best for those from other countries to support these basic capabilities and avoid more substantial cultural change in the hopes that we can end poverty without making the world too homogeneous.


This probably makes poverty within a rich country more similar to poverty in a poor country than we might otherwise think. The poorer members of rich countries face a wide variety of additional constraints that can create different conditions of scarcity.  That’s not to say that global poverty isn’t still particularly severe – no question, it is – but it’s not severe in the ways we often think it is.