Book review: Matt Ball and Bruce Friedrich (2009) The Animal Activist’s Handbook: Maximizing Our Positive Impact in Today’s World (Lantern Books: New York)

Price: ***
Ease of use: *****
Value for EAA beginners: ***
Value for EAA pros: *

This short book (89 small pages, if you exclude the various introductions and appendices) is interesting perhaps mostly as a historical document for the Effective Animal Advocacy Movement, rather than as an up-to-date resource for research-based advice. It may still serve as a great introduction to the topic for some newer advocates, as long as they are aware of its pitfalls, but for those who are already more engaged in the movement, I would recommend more specific resources, like Animal Charity Evaluator’s advice on cause prioritisation and their intervention reports, or Cooney’s book on social change (review coming soon).

The book was written in 2009, by two of the Good Food Institute’s current leadership team, long before GFI was created. At the time, Bruce Friedrich was senior director for strategic initiatives at Farm Sanctuary, having previously worked at PETA, whilst Matt Ball was co-founder and Executive Directors of Vegan Outreach. The preface begins with a description of their personal journeys and careers.

Outdated

In broad terms the book is devoted towards encouraging people to engage in individual advocacy to spread awareness of veganism, concluding with the remark that “animal liberation will be achieved… through person-by-person outreach, progressing hand-in-hand with advances in technology”. This is no longer the view of effective animal advocacy researchers. According to a 2017 survey of researchers, conducted by Sentience Institute, there is over 80% agreement that institutional advocacy is more effective than individual advocacy. Indeed, Friedrich and Ball themselves have shifted their personal efforts from supporting individual outreach to supporting supply-side change, now both working for GFI. When advising me on this blog post, Ball personally wrote “I worked on the demand side of things for almost 30 years, and in that time, we’ve accomplished very little other than welfare reforms… per-capita consumption of animals is at an all-time high. The overall failure of demand-side advocacy (evidence here) is what led me to want to work on the supply side, helping GFI advance everything in the plant-based and clean fields and markets.” Although Ball may be putting his earlier efforts down excessively harshly in the sense that, though meat consumption has continued to grow, it might be higher were it not for animal advocacy efforts, it is hard to argue with the suggestion that so far, individual advocacy efforts (and perhaps even demand-side interventions more widely) have not succeeded in radically reducing animal product consumption.

More specifically, the book consistently encourages the use of leaflets as a method of individual activism, with pages 78-82 being dedicated specifically to advice on techniques to become a more effective pamphleteer. Although, several years ago, Animal Charity Evaluators was optimistic about the effectiveness of leafleting, they have become much less confident. Although they continue to consider it a “promising volunteering activity”, their analysis suggests that, in the short-term, “leafleting is about as likely—or perhaps even more likely—to actually cause increases in animal product consumption” as decreases.

Continued primary use – great introduction to individual outreach

Nevertheless, the book still has potential as a great short introduction to effective individual outreach. Many activists continued to be interested in how to conduct individual outreach effectively – for many of those coming to Effective Animal Altruism London socials, it is the first question that they ask. As well as discussing the idea that other methods of outreach may actually be more efficient, I think I will now recommend this book to them (previously I have recommended Cooney’s book on social change – review coming soon – and SPIN Selling).

In the first chapter, the book essentially lays out a justification for focusing on reducing animal suffering by noting that the cause area is neglected (page 9) but has huge scale and tractability (both pages 15-17).  This summary is valuable for all animal advocates, though I would strongly encourage them to read ACE’s consideration of cause prioritisation too. Though “scale” is subdivided into “the sheer number of animals” and “the enormous amount of suffering involved”, this reasoning follows common Effective Altruism cause prioritisation logic. The fascinating thing is that this book was published in 2009, whereas the Centre for Effective Altruism, 80,000 Hours and Open Philanthropy Project, the three main EA organisations conducting cause prioritisation research, were all founded in 2011! I’d encourage everyone to consider how far animal advocacy should be prioritised compared to other cause areas too, using their research – this page is likely the best place to start.

Chapters 2 and 3 lay out a case for a more respectful and empathetic approach to animal advocacy than many vegans are tempted to engage in. This advice is based primarily on an understanding of persuasion and pop-psychology works like Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People, rather than on animal advocacy-specific advice. In many ways, the book gives similar arguments to those of Tobias Leenaert, though in a more condensed format than Leenaert’s book.

Other uses and limitations

Although largely agreeing with the subsequent conclusions of researchers in the Effective Altruism community and Effective Animal Advocacy movement, the book itself does not place these ideas within a research framework, using instead primarily a rational common-sense approach, combined with some wider popular (partially research-based) advice books. Aside from the fact that it is superseded by more in depth research and advice in many ways, the relative lack of specific references to research makes the case less plausible overall.

Additionally, the book is couched within a slightly odd framework of Friedrich and Ball’s ideas about “the joy of a meaningful life”. In some ways, this matches to later conclusions of 80,000 Hours, the Effective Altruism movement’s research-based careers advice organisation, such as when they note that “Happiness does not come from an easy or materially ‘rich’ life. It comes from a thoughtful, meaningful life dedicated to changing the world for the better”. In other instances, it seems to contradict 80,000 Hours’ advice, such as when encouraging individuals to follow their passion for animals. The conclusions are drawn from rational thinking combined with their own personal experiences and world views. I found many of the conclusions agreeable, but this approach leads the book to begin with a slightly hippy-ish vibe which I found off-putting, and which doesn’t match up to the evidence-focused approach of the Effective Animal Advocacy movement today.

There are other gems of advice within the book. I found the advice on “effective time management” on pages 26 to 29 helpful, for example, largely because it referred to some works I have not heard of before, such as Steven Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People (1990) which sounds like it largely corroborates the implications of Cal Newport’s Deep Work.

Although cheap, the book is very short, so in terms of specific information, the value for money is not necessarily fantastic. Organised clearly by chapter heading and with subheadings, it would be very easy for an advocate to use the book to skim through the elements which seemed most useful to them in 30 minutes to an hour, or just to read the whole thing in only a few hours.

3 thoughts on “Book review: Matt Ball and Bruce Friedrich (2009) The Animal Activist’s Handbook: Maximizing Our Positive Impact in Today’s World (Lantern Books: New York)

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