Reflections on grassroots protests

Disclaimer: I am an employee of Sentience Institute but, as usual, this post represents entirely my own views.

There are already excellent resources considering the effectiveness of grassroots protests and how to maximise their effectiveness. These include:

  • Animal Charity Evaluators’ report on protests. The list of likely positive and negative outcomes seems quite comprehensive, and the relevant evidence is clearly summarised.
  • Sentience Institute’s foundational question summaries, especially on confrontation vs. nonconfrontation, individual vs. institutional interventions and messaging, and controversial publicity stunts vs. other tactics.
  • A 2015 essay by Jacy Reese on “Confrontation, Consumer Action, and
    Triggering Events.”
  • A report by the Anyi Institute, commissioned by Open Philanthropy Project, on “Funding and Growing Social Movements.” This includes an explanation of a theory of how grassroots protests fit into a wider social movement “ecology,” evidence that they are underfunded relative to their effectiveness, and some ideas for how to measure impact.
  • A 2016 summary of relevant evidence on direct action by Zach Groff, considering Direct Action Everywhere’s tactics.

Should we support grassroots protest with marginal EAA resources?

Individuals often have strong intuitions on the foundational questions in effective animal advocacy. Lack of awareness of particular arguments or pieces of evidence could lead to excessive optimism or pessimism about particular intervention types.

Other possible causes of excessive optimism about the effectiveness of grassroots protests:

  • Preference for radicalism — Some interventions, such as those to improve the provision of animal-free food or to improve farmed animal welfare, may seem frustratingly slow and conservative. Grassroots protests may feel more direct, rapid, radical, and consistent with activists’ own beliefs.
  • Getting swept up in mass enthusiasm — Engagement from activists may be a poor proxy for effects on the targets of the protest, be they institutional actors or the general public.
  • Assumption that all publicity is good publicity — The way that society frames discussion of animal issues may be more important than how highly the public prioritise animal issues.[1] High salience of an issue could encourage polarization, which could encourage stagnation longer-term.[2]
  • Overestimating the public’s enthusiasm for change — To the extent that we think that grassroots protests are likely to have diminishing returns and should be used sparingly, it may be better not to use them at this time. [3]

Other possible causes of excessive pessimism about the effectiveness of grassroots protests:

  • Measurability bias — It’s tempting to focus on interventions that have more measurable outcomes and quicker feedback loops, such as corporate welfare campaigns, because the effects are clearer. However, more measurable interventions are not necessarily higher impact.
  • Short-term focus — Certainly, some forms of grassroots protest actions are high risk. For example, high-profile protests may be perceived negatively and shift the framing of debate in an undesired direction.[4] Nevertheless, certain protests could have high positive impact if they shift the framing of public discussion in a positive direction, build substantial momentum for progress on animal issues, or secure major institutional commitments.
  • Aversion to confrontation — Even if an intervention encourages a backfire effect among some of its audience, its overall effects could be positive.
  • Low precedent within EAA — Apart from groups that use protests as part of campaigns to secure corporate welfare commitments, there are few groups funded by Open Philanthropy Project or recommended by Animal Charity Evaluators that use grassroots protests extensively.

Below are several different examples of grassroots protest tactics, with those that I think are the highest priority to support with marginal EAA resources listed nearer the top:

  • The Humane League and the Open Wing Alliance — The welfare campaigns that these groups work on are very cost-effective on short timeframes.[5] Protests are a key part of these campaigns and the movement building efforts of these groups. On longer timeframes, however, I am uncertain whether welfare campaigns encourage more momentum for further change than complacency.[6]
  • Animal Rebellion — This group (first protest scheduled for October 2019) has a clear institutional focus. It is taking advantage of the window of opportunity in the UK opened by Extinction Rebellion’s protests and the government’s declaration of a “climate emergency.” Given the disruptive nature of the protests, I am concerned about the risks of alienating the public and of activists burning out. Additionally, the goals of the environmental movement are not always aligned with those of effectiveness-focused animal advocates, so greater collaboration could have negative effects in the long term.[7]
  • The Save Movement — The Save Movement has built up an impressive network of local groups that conduct regular vigils, “bearing witness” to animal suffering. The direct impact of these actions is likely low, since the disruption does not seem likely to pose a substantial threat to the slaughterhouses’ profitability. However, the large numbers of individuals that have been inspired to join vigils could possibly be mobilised for targeted campaigns with more specific institutional demands. The Save Movement is exploring this sort of opportunity, having seconded three staff members to work full-time on Animal Rebellion.
  • Anonymous for the Voiceless — This group’s street demonstrations mobilise large numbers of regular activists to engage in individual vegan outreach using videos. Given the number of these events, even if this use of time would not likely be cost-effective for paid employees to conduct directly, it could still add up to a substantial impact overall. Research I’m doing for SI in the first draft stage has mixed implications for this.[13] On the other hand, I worry that the use of masks is counterproductive and that the activists could be engaged in higher impact interventions. 
  • Surge — Large scale marches for animals without specific institutional demands, organised by groups like Surge, have similar promise to The Save Movement’s vigils. However, I suspect that annual marches are less effective at building up a community of regular activists. In the short-term, I would guess that the chanting and focus on individual dietary change alienates more people than it encourages to reduce their animal product consumption.
  • Direct Action Everywhere — DxE’s  focus on systemic change (that is, longer-term impact), including via movement building, is great. My impression is that the narrative is really appealing to a lot of animal advocates. The focus of many of their protests on confronting individuals about their current consumption habits seems less promising to me. I also worry that these protests are shifting public discussion towards a more negative view of animal activists and the changes that they advocate for.

How can organisers maximise the impact of grassroots protests?

Questions to consider when seeking to maximise the impact of grassroots protests include:

  • How can you increase the likelihood that media coverage and public discussion will be supportive of your aims, rather than hostile? For example, can you ensure that you use institutionally focused messaging? Can you target locations that symbolise the most unpopular and emotionally salient aspects of animal agriculture, such as slaughterhouses?[8] If the protests cause hostile public reactions, they could do more damage than good overall.
  • How can you ensure that publicity and the increased salience of animal issues are converted into positive progress for animals? For example, what are the concrete demands that you will make and how likely are these to be accepted?[9] Some animal advocacy groups have built excellent support bases, but have not (so far) used this mobilisation to make concrete demands of relevant institutional actors.[10] This seems like a missed opportunity.
  • How can the sustainability of this type of action be ensured? Protests that risk arrest could be demoralising if change is not forthcoming,[11] as well as damaging to the individuals involved.
  • The factors listed by ACE’s report.

Research that I’d love to see

The research suggestions below could support improvements the effectiveness of grassroots protest groups and help to support resource prioritisation decisions in the EAA community. If you’re interested in conducting any of this research, feel free to get in contact with me directly at james_a_harris [at] hotmail.co.uk; I’d love to chat and possibly to help out directly.

  • Surveys conducted before and after a wave of large-scale mass protest to evaluate the levels of support for the protesters’ demands and for other animal advocacy issues. Some questions could be based on those in SI’s survey. Asking participants in the second survey whether they had heard of the protest group would enable separate analysis of a “treatment” group (those who have heard of the group’s protests) and an imperfect “control” group (those who have not).[12]
  • RCTs testing the effects of variations in messaging strategies, calls to action, and sites of protest (e.g. slaughterhouses, supermarkets, or government buildings) on support for the protesters’ demands and the likelihood of engaging with the protests.
  • Tracking of media mentions of the protests, categorised on a scale from opposition to support. Noting features associated with particular protests (e.g. target location) could enable the tracking of correlations between use of those features the volume and supportiveness of media coverage. Tracking would be easier with online articles, e.g. via Google alerts.

Endnotes

[1] The importance of issue framing has been a consistent theme in Sentience Institute’s case studies.

[2] An example of where this may have happened is in the anti-abortion movement; I have a research report on this forthcoming for Sentience Institute. See also SI’s summary of the arguments for and against “controversial publicity stunts vs. other tactics.”

[3] It may be better, for example, to focus the use of these tactics around trigger events such as a food safety scandal, or the release of undercover investigation footage that has received unusually high media attention.

[4] See, by comparison, the effect that Operation Rescue has had on the anti-abortion movement.

[5] Although there is some scope for disagreement with this based on the size of the welfare improvements (e.g. see this comment by Wayne Hsiung of Direct Action Everywhere) and the possibility that companies will backslide on their commitments (see this report by Rethink Priorities), numerous groups have come to similar conclusions about the cost-effectiveness of these campaigns: Open Philanthropy Project, Animal Charity Evaluators, Founders Pledge, Rethink Priorities, and (sort of) Charity Entrepreneurship.

[6] I am about 75% confident that the movement-building effects of these campaigns are substantial enough that the interventions are positive overall, even if they do have small effects on encouraging complacency. I am less confident that the campaigns have substantial positive effects on increasing momentum for radical change, such as ending factory farming.

[7] See SI’s summaries of the arguments and evidence for “Broad vs. animal focus” and for “Animal protection vs. environmental vs. human health focus.”

[8] In Sentience Institute’s 2017 survey in the US, more people (47%) supported a ban on slaughterhouses than supported a ban on animal farming (32%).

[9] The protests by The Humane League provide a good example of where clear, concrete demands are being made. The protests are used to put pressure on a company to make a specific welfare pledge that has usually already been made by other companies. Consequently, large numbers of organisations agree to THL’s demands. A similar approach could be used for government targets.

[10] See discussion of The Save Movement, Surge, and Anonymous for the Voiceless above.

[11] Alesha E. Doan, Opposition & Intimidation: The Abortion Wars & Strategies of Political Harassment (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2007), 88, writing on Operation Rescue, a direct action group in the anti-abortion movement, notes that “Many rank-and-file members could not keep up with the hectic pace of blockades, arrests, and imprisonment, especially as jail sentences were stiffened. By 1990, Operation Rescue was down to a core of ‘professional rescuers’ who traveled from city to city living off free food and lodging provided by pro-life sympathizers.” On page 86, Doan notes that “By 1990, Operation Rescue’s activities had significantly diminished—a paltry 34 blockades were held that year, and only 1,363 protesters were arrested [compared to 201 and 12,358 respectively in the previous year].”

[12] For an example of a paper that used a similar methodology, see Charles H. Franklin and Liane C. Kosaki, “Republican Schoolmaster: The U.S. Supreme Court, Public Opinion, and Abortion,” The American Political Science Review 83, no. 3 (1989), 764-7 and the methodological discussion in John Hanley, Michael Salamone, and Matthew Wright, “Reviving the Schoolmaster: Reevaluating Public Opinion in the Wake of Roe v. Wade,” Political Research Quarterly 65, no. 2 (2011), 408-21.

[13] Although I can’t condense the relevant evidence into a short footnote, the anti-abortion movement has used “sidewalk counselling” outreach extensively, but this seems unlikely to have had much/any positive effect on the rate of abortion incidence. However,  I place high weight on the evidence from the health behaviour literature that “brief interventions” can be effective, and meta-analyses I have seen suggest that small effect sizes are most likely. This is similar to other forms of individual intervention in the health behaviour literature. Additionally, there is some evidence suggesting that brief interventions are not made more effective by increasing the amount of contact time involved in interactions. This suggests that interventions used in the farmed animal movement that rely on short interactions to encourage behaviour change, such as street outreach promoting veganism, may have some effect.

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Effective animal advocacy movement building: a neglected opportunity?

This is a linkpost to a post I have written on the EA Forum. Below, I have copied over the summary. Click the link above for the full post.

Organisations such as the Centre for Effective Altruism and 80,000 Hours, as well as the individuals involved in local effective altruism (EA) groups, have conducted excellent work supporting aspiring EAs to do good. However, these organisations and many of the individuals involved in local EA groups focus predominantly on supporting work on reducing existential risk (x-risk), either directly or indirectly, especially extinction risk. The communities of other cause areas, such as the effective animal advocacy community (EAA, i.e. the intersection of effective altruism and animal advocacy) have comparably less access to movement-building services than do those in the EA community who prioritise reducing extinction risks. There is likely substantial unmet demand for movement building services in EAA.

EAA movement building projects are suggested that might meet this demand. Some of these projects may be best-suited to volunteers, some to new, targeted organisations, and some to existing EAA organisations. Some general considerations of the advantages and disadvantages that each of these has for taking up EAA movement building opportunities are listed.

Open Cages UK YouGov poll results

In March 2019, Open Cages UK ran a poll through YouGov as part of their #TescoTruth campaign. The poll had 2,049 respondents. The results may be directly useful for other UK advocates for informing campaign strategy and messaging decisions. They may be of interest more widely, but the questions may be too specific to be of much direct use to advocates in other countries.

Thanks to Connor Jackson and Open Cages for running the poll and sharing its results.

You can see the full results here.

In one question, “Generally speaking, which, if any, of the following are/would be important to you when purchasing meat from a supermarket?” participants could select as many options as they liked. Only 25% of respondents selected either “none of these” or “don’t know,” with between 44% and 60% of respondents selecting various included welfare considerations.

Only 30% selected the option “That the animal’s life was as long as possible,” which was substantially lower than the next lowest option. From a utilitarian perspective, if animals are suffering badly, as it seems likely that factory farmed broiler chickens are, then extending their life is morally undesirable. However, this point feels slightly counterintuitive and I would have expected the numbers of people selecting this option to be similar or higher than other options.

Three other questions were asked:

  • Only 19% agreed with the statement: “Supermarkets are honest about the welfare of the chickens they sell.” It is unclear whether this reflects a general distrust of supermarkets or distrust of supermarkets specifically on farmed animal issues. In either case, it suggests that anti-industry messaging may find a receptive audience in the UK.
  • 72% agreed with the statement: “When buying chicken, people should know if the chicken had a healthy life.”
  • 44% agreed with the statement: “Selective breeding is good as long as the animals have no health problems.”

I can’t see many consistent demographic trends. Female respondents were slightly more supportive of the various animal asks, which is unsurprising. I am more surprised that there is a lack of strong, consistent trends in comparisons between certain variables that I would have expected to show them, such as London and the South compared to other areas, or older participants compared to younger participants. I don’t place much weight on this, however, because the questions are not all structured in a way that makes the pro-animal position clear: agreeing with the second question shows support for both “selective breeding” and animals having “no health problems” and agreeing with the fourth question may reflect distrust of supermarkets and companies in general, rather than on the issue of chicken welfare specifically.

Effective Animal Advocacy in China: Perspectives from a Chinese student activist

Post author: Ouyang Huiyu. Huiyu is President of Student Vegetarian Association of Tsinghua University and Co-convener of China University Vegetarian Association Network.

Jamie, I broadly agree with your three focuses in your post. The method of legislation to restrict factory farming is often overlooked, but I will point out some possibilities. And hopefully I will briefly introduce the efforts and challenges in advancing such legislation in China in my report at International Animal Rights Conference next month.

For Max’s post, let me first point out some mistakes of little matter. Chinese people don’t use HappyCow, so you simply can’t find many places with veg options on HappyCow. In fact there are as many veg restaurants in Shanghai as in Tokyo.

The situation in Japan is also not necessarily better than China. Society there does not respect personal choices. Many young people follow the western trend, but the trend might be unpredictable. I learnt from one Chinese report that not hiring vegetarians is a hidden rule for many Japanese companies. When I traveled to Tokyo in the winter of 2017, which was an exchange program with Meikai University, the teachers just didn’t know much about vegetarianism or veganism and they would not ask me questions to learn about it. In China, when a teacher knows that I am vegan, he or she would often be very open minded to talk with me about this topic.

We probably don’t have many dog farms in China. The dogs seem to be mostly stolen, mainly from rural areas. We’re unsure what portion of Chinese dog meat comes from farms. But there are many dog/cat shelters, estimated several thousand across the country. I went to a typical one in Chengdu earlier this month; they spent 9 thousand yuan (including the salary of 18 or 19 staff) per day to take care of 4 or 5 thousand dogs and cats. And they feed the dogs and cats meat (mainly animal organs) and expired milk.

I don’t think it’s fair to say that “the level of respect the general public holds for animals like pets seems barely present in China”, using the Yulin dog meat festival as evidence. Many people are mobilized to fight against the dog meat trade (Yulin is a typical case). People are organized to stop the vans on highways to save the dogs, demonstrate or give speeches at the dog festival, which can be seen as a beginning of the animal rights movement, or even the forming of a civil society, considering such assemblies are not allowed in China. I think such direct actions have the potential to be connected to the worldwide network the Save Movement (I talked with Anita Krajnc about this). And hopefully people will start to care about not only companion animals but also farm animals. I heard a lecture from an activist with years of experience challenging the dog meat trade, which suggested that a considerable number of people who have participated in dog rescue have turned into vegetarians or vegans within a year.

Lawyers play a vital important role in dog rescue actions. Since we don’t have laws against animal abuse, legal mobilization strategy transforms into real opportunity space, together with other activists’ work. In the case of dog rescues, lawyers help to defend the legitimacy of the actions. Collaboration between animal rescue organizations, volunteers, lawyers and animal hospitals constitutes the movement foundation, during which the courage of citizen is essential. In this process, animal activists learn to cooperate with lawyers to protect animals by law, which is why I say that there could be possibilities on your second suggestion, that “animal advocates should start explicitly paving the way for wide-reaching legislation to restrict factory farming”. But I’m not sure how the overall process of promoting legislation would go, as the rule of law in China is getting worse these years.

A short update what the Student Vegetarian Association of Tsinghua University (SVATHU) and the China University Vegetarian Association Network (CUVAN) have been up to.

Here is a post of what SVATHU did in the Spring Semester. I will update the post next month to add our progress after June. You will see that SVATHU avoided the environment and health causes being emphasised too much in the past. But we will try to advocate from the environmental perspective (on our vegan starter kit) whilst not to increase the suffering of small animals.

CUVAN more widely has been busy. We’ve been working hard to reach out to veg associations of several universities in major cities in China to expand our network. We participated in the Good Food Hero Summit organized by Good Food Fund (China), where we had roundtable conference with catering directors from two of China’s top universities. Last week we hosted a lecture by Peter Singer in Tsinghua University where he talked about Effective Altruism.

Some brief thoughts on effective communication about veganism

Very often, people I meet at Effective Animal Altruism London events are keen to discuss how to make their communication with non-vegans effective. What should I say when somebody asks me why I have gone vegan? How can I discuss this issue with friends, family and strangers?

Before I share my “advice”, it’s important to put this question in context. Most researchers in the Effective Animal Advocacy community agree that focusing on individual vegan outreach probably isn’t the best use of our time and resources – see this summary of the points on either side of the debate. So I’d encourage you to make sure you’ve spent a little time planning how to maximise your overall impact. Additionally, make sure you aren’t burning out as an activist by forcing yourself to engage in individual outreach at every possible opportunity. Your long-term impact is more important than those individual conversations!

Nevertheless, every vegan will have this sort of conversation from time to time.

I’m not aware of any extremely strong evidence on the issue, but in general, there is a lot of evidence from outside the EAA community which has relevance to the topic:

  • An understanding of humans’ cognitive biases, and findings from psycholgy more generally, will inevitably help an understanding of what sorts of communication work well. The best practical summary of psychology for EAA purposes that I know of is this book by Nick Cooney.
  • Literature on negotiations and sales techniques will also be useful, as long as this is used cautiously, and you recognise the differences between the contexts that they were intended for, and an animal advocacy context. You might find my summary of Neil Rackham’s book, with (relevant) research-based sales advice, helpful.

Within animal advocacy, many people have written about the messages we should share, both from moral and effectiveness perspectives. A lot of this work is based on the intuitions of (experienced) activists; personally I would place less weight on any of this advice than on conclusions from external, specialised fields. Here are a few examples:

  • Tobias Leenaert’s book and blog; he argues vegans should be inclusive and empathetic in their approach.
  • Melanie Joy’s talks and books; she also argues for empathy, and has a few specific tips about language to support this.
  • Earthling Ed’s advice; like Joy and Leenaert, he advocates empathy. His socratic dialogue technique could be easily combined with the research-based sales advice of Neil Rackham.
  • Others (Gary Francione etc) would emphasise the need for expressing a consistent moral baseline of veganism, and taking an uncompromising position. I can see why consistency might be persuasive over time, but I’m not convinced this is the most important consideration. See here for a summary of the debate on this issue.
  • Plenty of other resources, I’m sure. Here are some other people’s suggestions, when I asked them about this question as I was brand new to the EAA community.

I certainly wouldn’t consider myself an expert on effective communication, but here’s a brief summary of the perspective I tend to take:

  • I’m wary of the backfire effect, so I tend to avoid challenging people without invitation, and only discuss veganism with people when they ask me, or seem interested.
  • I lead by example, rather than explicitly conducting outreach. So I try to present veganism as easy and enjoyable enough that becoming vegan doesn’t seem like a burden.
  • I try to be inclusive and empathetic (although I’m not necessarily great at this).
  •  I try to be sensitive to my context and to the person or people I am discussing the issue with: some people might be more or less receptive to logical arguments arguments; some people might be more persuaded by ethical arguments compared to environmental and health arguments (note, however, I think its important we emphasise an ethical argument where possible, and use other arguments as supplementary).

So if people ask me why I’m vegan, I usually say something like:

“Most of the animal products that we eat involve raising animals in terrible conditions and cause intense suffering. These days, there’s more and more vegan food available, so it’s relatively easy to avoid animal products entirely, and to prevent that suffering from happening.”

Then depending on how people react, I judge whether to a) stop talking about it (often this is the best response, to avoid the backfire effect), b) explain more in depth some of the negative consequences of eating animal products, or c) just focus on the positives of veganism.

I don’t have any evidence that this approach works better than any other beyond the anecdotal: out of people I have lived with in the past, 2 have gone vegan, 2 have become consciously reducetarian. So I don’t hold any of these views particularly strongly. At the CEVA training that I attended, Melanie Joy argued that it a productive approach is to lead by explaining your personal vegan journey, as a way to reduce defensiveness; I think I will try this out in future. I hope some of the links and reflections on this short post are useful for a few people, however.

My areas of potential disagreement with other EAAs

Disclaimer: From 01/08/18, I will be working full-time for Sentience Institute. I was also considering a potential role at Veganuary and have been in regular contact with the co-founder. I hold both organisations in high regard; probably higher than average within the EAA community. Thanks to Connor Jackson, Vicky Bond and Matthew Glover for their feedback on the first draft. This post represents entirely my own views, rather than those of the commenters or of my new employers.

Recently, Jacy Reese of Sentience Institute posted a blog post on “3 Big Changes We Need in the Farmed Animal Movement”. It seemed like a useful post for members of the Effective Animal Advocacy movement, in that it clearly outlines three suggestions for major reforms. I would encourage all readers of this blog to read that post. It has also inspired me to create a similar list of areas where I suspect I disagree with others in the EAA community, broadly defined. This is less of a confident, well-informed plea to those involved in EAA organisations (which is broadly how I see Reese’s post) and more of an attempt to draw attention to some potentially important issues. These issues might potentially meet Reese’s criteria of being “important” and “under-discussed”, although I am not yet particularly confident about any of my own thoughts about the long-term implications of animal advocacy strategies, and I can’t claim that my reflections here have as extensive a research basis as those in Reese’s post.

This post may generate useful feedback for myself, so that I can update my own views, but may also encourage others to change their own views and behaviours.

For simplicity’s sake, I have focused on three issues. For those interested in wider debates within EAA, some of the best resources are Sentience Institute’s list of foundational questions, and Animal Charity Evaluators’ intervention reports, plus materials on cause prioritisation.

The three focus areas are:                     

    1. High profile vegan pledge campaigns have been relatively under-utilised as a method of taking some of the low-hanging fruit of individual transitions towards veganism, but also as a method of generating momentum for corporate outreach. This view comes with some important caveats, however.
    2. Animal advocates should start explicitly paving the way for wide-reaching legislation to restrict factory farming. This is more tractable than we might assume, and potentially more desirable, although there are risks involved.
    3. Some EAA efforts are close to saturation in developed, Western countries, and greater effort should be placed on expanding into countries with less of an EAA presence. This must be done in a very careful manner, which is considerate to varying cultures and conditions.

 

 

High profile vegan pledge campaigns have been relatively under-utilised

Description

Supporting individuals to reduce their consumption of animal products has short-term benefits by reducing the demand for animal products, and therefore reducing the number of animals suffering in factory farms. Reduced use of a particular behaviour can correlate to (and may directly lead to) reduced support for a wider practice; reducing animal product consumption might therefore help to challenge speciesism and encourage wider moral circle expansion. Where it is cost-effective to do so, this is therefore a useful intervention.

Proactive, individual vegan outreach is difficult, for a number of reasons. Vegan pledges are more “reactive” in the sense that they support individuals who are already close to making the switch to veganism to do so. They essentially pick the low-hanging fruit of potential vegans. I suspect that the main benefit of widespread publicity of pledges is in redirecting people towards the pledge itself and its supporting resources, rather than in independently changing people’s attitudes. Even if the EAA movement de-emphasises a vegan ask, there will likely be those who wish to personally abstain from cruelty, as discussion of animal issues becomes more widespread and pledge campaigns support those individuals to do so.

Perhaps most importantly, high-profile pledge campaigns have the potential to have a large indirect impact by provoking businesses to perceive there to be an increase in demand for vegan products. Rather than simply encouraging veganism among the low-hanging fruit, high-profile pledge campaigns may therefore also drive corporate and institutional change which makes consumption of plant-based foods instead of animal products easier and more widespread.

An important caveat, however, is that there are a number of ways in which pledge programmes could fail to be effective, thereby wasting resources, or could even be counter-productive. Although far from failing completely, other charities in the UK (see here and here as examples) have run vegan pledges which have never achieved the same publicity or success as Veganuary has. This suggests that the specific planning and marketing of the campaigns could be crucial, although the differences in success may partially reflect differing levels of resource input. For an example of a potentially counterproductive pledge, see this one, which encourages reductions in red meat consumption, which could potentially lead to increased consumption of chicken meat and therefore an increase in total animal suffering (for an estimate of the suffering caused by different animal products, see here). Furthermore, there may be some dangers of encouraging veganism, and it may be better for the EAA movement to focus primarily on institutional messaging. See a summary of that debate here.

The potential for more widespread change arising from vegan pledge programmes is untested at this point. This seems like a promising avenue to explore, however. I would encourage those looking to found new charities outside of the UK to consider focusing on a pledge programme, and those who are happier to donate to riskier intervention types to consider funding pledge programmes.  

Evidence

In support of the claim that reducing animal product consumption will possibly challenge speciesism more widely, this study, though with a small sample size, suggests that those who consume animal products extend compassion to a smaller “moral circle” than those who do not. Psychological understanding of cognitive dissonance more widely makes this seem plausible, although I am not aware of more conclusive evidence that this process is inevitable.  

There is a wide variety of evidence showing that individual outreach is difficult. Some of this will be considered in more depth in the second section, below, but a speculative cost-effectiveness comparison makes the basic point. Individual outreach can often be costly to lead to meaningful change for animals, when advocates are seeking to proactively reach out to potential vegans. One of the most promising interventions in this area has turned out to be disappointing. Recently, Peter Hurford and Marcus Davis’ reanalysis of the study by Faunalytics and Animal Equality into individual video outreach “points to an estimate of $310 per pig year saved (90% interval: $46 to $1100)”, which is incredibly expensive compared to other intervention types, such as corporate outreach or undercover investigations. Although their cost effectiveness estimates are speculative, and they don’t place much weight on them, Animal Charity Evaluators estimate that undercover investigations might spare between 0.15 and 820 animals from living through factory farming conditions per dollar spent (with their “realistic” estimate being 210 lives). By comparison, Hurford and Davis’ analysis suggests that, if applied to chickens and converted into a lives per dollar figure, video outreach might spare between 0.03 and 1.4 animal lives (with a manipulating of their main estimate suggesting 0.18 lives). Although we shouldn’t take such cost-effectiveness comparisons as particularly reliable, the figures here would suggest that undercover investigations were over 1000 times more cost-effective than individual (video) outreach at sparing animals from living through factory farming. 

In contrast to this expensive form of outreach, a relatively thorough evaluation by Veganuary suggests that their pledge programme is sufficiently cost-efficient to make their impact per dollar comparable to ACE top charities, and could spare between 5 and 20 animal lives per pound, which translates to between 3.8 an 15.2 animal lives per dollar, at current exchange rates. They are currently seeking fuller evidence and external review from ACE to corroborate this, but this could suggest that their pledge programme is well over an order of magnitude more impactful than individual video outreach, if we compare the figures to those from Hurford and Davis’ reanalysis of the Faunalytics study.

 Veganuary’s experience has shown that their pledge programme has led companies to provide more plant-based foods and sometimes to actively promote plant-based foods and diets. The pledge campaign has also led to opportunities for direct corporate outreach. Although Veganuary’s success in these areas has been mostly confined to the UK, it seems possible that success with highly-publicised pledge programmes could drive momentum for wider corporate and institutional change in other countries too, whether through Veganuary or other charities.

Animal advocates should start explicitly paving the way for wide-reaching legislation to restrict factory farming

Description

Although there are a variety of different forms of individual vegan outreach, as noted above, this does not seem to be a particularly tractable area for reducing animal suffering in many cases. This suggests that a shift towards institutional interventions and messaging would be more impactful. A shift from individual to institutional interventions is advocated by Jacy Reese, Tobias Leenaert and other EAA researchers, whilst the wider debate is summarised here.

Political and legislative efforts are a particular type of institutional intervention. There is evidence that wide-reaching legislation to restrict factory farming is more tractable than common sense would suggest (see below).

Efforts to implement such radical legislation to reduce animal suffering are high-risk, but potentially offer high-rewards.

They are high risk in the sense that they seem ambitious and difficult, and could fail. This would drain significant resources from the EAA movement, that could otherwise have made a huge amount of difference for animals. Perhaps worse than the resource cost, however, is the risk that failed efforts could set a dangerous precedent or perhaps lead to a backlash effect, either in terms of legislation or in terms of changed public perceptions of animal advocacy. This might make further victories for animals more difficult.

Radical legislative efforts would, however, probably have an extremely high impact for animals, if successful. Such legislation could not only make significant improvements in animal welfare in the short-term, but would cripple the profitability of the animal agriculture industry by forcing businesses to use less efficient practices and may therefore help to make widespread animal agriculture impractical.

The closest effort that I know of to the sort of far-reaching legislation that I am proposing here is being pushed by Sentience Politics in Switzerland; read more here.

Evidence

As noted in the first section of this post, efforts at proactive vegan outreach can be expensive. This study by Animal Welfare Action Lab seems to suggest that a reducetarian ask is not significantly more cost-effective than a vegan ask. The differences were not statistically significant between the treatment groups; compared to a control group, those exposed to an “eliminate” appeal reported to have reduced their meat consumption by around half a portion over 30 days on average, whilst those exposed to a “reduce” appeal reported an average reduction of around three-quarters.

More widely, there is a range of psychological biases and effects that reduce the tractability of efforts to systematically change individuals’ behaviour. Many of these are listed here and here. Efforts at vegan outreach have been ongoing for decades, and yet have had extremely limited success. Animal product consumption continues to rise, both globally and, in some cases, within developed countries, whilst the proportion of vegans has not risen substantially.

There is a range of evidence from social movements showing that efforts to change individual consumption habits have not played a significant role in wider successes for social movements, except where it has been used in a targeted way to facilitate wider political campaigns. As an example, one historian of the Free Produce Movement to boycott slave-made items in the USA has written that “there is little evidence that slaveholders or their political representatives paid much attention to [the free produce movement] and no evidence that it had a discernible economic impact on them” (I’ve cited them second-hand from here). In the British anti-slavery movement, there was a boycott of West Indian sugar, but this only reached 4-6% of the population, and yet slavery was abolished in 1833, after being severely damaged by legislation that ended the slave trade in Britain in 1807.

Furthermore, the historical success of this movement suggests that a single piece of significant legislation, which fundamentally weakened the institution and industry of slavery helped to lead to its eventual full, formal abolition (at least in that country). Legislation banning factory farming, or perhaps even slaughterhouses, could have a similar effect on ending animal agriculture. Other historical social movements, such children’s rights, also suggest that legislation can be successfully implemented without full public support for an issue, but can subsequently shape both attitudes and behaviour.

The best evidence that wide-reaching legislation to restrict factory farming is surprisingly tractable is that in a recent survey (which has been replicated, and its findings confirmed), 49% of US adults said that they support a ban on factory farming, 47% said that they support a ban on slaughterhouses, and 33% said that they support a ban on animal farming. That said, some countries are probably more amenable to such legislation than others. In Canada, modest animal welfare measures (against practices which are unpopular and illegal in other countries) were rejected in 2016, for example, suggesting that more radical reforms are not tractable there, unless political circumstances change.

One benchmark for how much such a campaign might cost in a developed, Western country could be a comparison to the campaign costs for the Brexit referendum, which were limited to £7 million. Clearly costs could be far higher, or somewhat lower than this, however. Given that Open Philanthropy Project has recommended grants totalling over $48 million in the past few years towards animal welfare causes, such costs seem large but achievable, if the EAA movement prioritises legislative efforts enough.

Many examples could probably be found of times where failed legislation either has or hasn’t delayed progress of a social movement or popular goal. An intuitive political analogy is how in the UK, in 2011, the issue of electoral reform was shaped by the Liberal Democrat Party into a referendum on the issue of whether or not to changed the voting system from First Past The Post to Alternative Vote. AV was an unpopular system, and the public rejected the change; voting reform has not been discussed much in the UK since, and I suspect that the political campaign has delayed progress on the issue by many years. One example which serves as counter-evidence is that in the late 18th century, several abolition bills were suggested and rejected, and yet the slave trade was abolished in 1807.

Greater effort should be placed on expanding into countries with less of an EAA presence

Description

Many developed, Western countries have had animal advocacy movements for decades, and this has combined with Effective Altruism ideas to develop the EAA movement in recent years. There are, however, many countries in the world which have not had substantial animal advocacy movements and are comparatively disconnected from the developments in the EAA movement. Some of these countries are also countries with incredibly high use of animals for food (in total, if not per capita), or are currently on a trajectory towards increasing use of animals as food. This website is useful for easily visualising and comparing countries’ animal product use, and comes from UN FAO data. Note how China produced 18.19 million tonnes of poultry meat in 2014, second only to the USA. Brazil produced 13 million tonnes, while even India, known for relatively widespread vegetarianism, produced 2.76 million tonnes. See Lewis Bollard’s newsletters for excellent summaries of both the problems and opportunities in China and India.

These countries with high total animal product use have had various forms of animal advocacy; see PETA India as one example. Nevertheless, my impression is that the proportion of people working on animal advocacy in some of these countries is far smaller than in much of the developed, Western world and that this is even more the case for those connected to EAA research and ideas. Given the huge scale of (potential) animal suffering, and the relative neglectedness of advocacy in such countries, the EAA community should be focusing its resources, where possible on exploring opportunities for action there.

This will almost always involve trade-offs for organisations, and will often be a relatively “risky” opportunity. But the expected value of seeking to expand into countries with a lower track record of animal advocacy seems higher.

The leadership of multiple charities have expressed explicitly to me that fundraising reasons at least partially underpin their expansion into the UK or USA. But by entering such countries, charities are essentially trying to compete with other animal advocacy charities already in that country. This may still be beneficial overall, if the charity is more impactful than other animal charities. However, by entering countries with less of a track record of animal advocacy, I suspect that animal charities are more likely to locate and open up new sources of funding for the movement, which may be small at first but may grow over time.

I hold the views expressed in this section slightly less strongly than those in the previous sections, however. This is because there are still intervention types which have not come anywhere close to saturation in many developed, Western countries. I also suspect it is possible that the leadership of EAA organisations also share my priorities longer-term, but that they are simply being relatively cautious, and focusing on expanding their successful programmes into culturally similar countries before they attempt to expand them elsewhere.  

If you agree that more neglected areas should be a higher priority, even if the tractability of interventions there is unclear, then there is still a need for caution. We don’t want organisations to take action in a culturally insensitive manner, which could potentially reduce the tractability of future actions, by alienating the governments or wider populations of those countries. Some relevant concerns are listed here, such as the danger of creating bad first impressions, although I’d suggest that some of the concerns about Effective Altruism there apply less to EAA specifically; there is less of a requirement for specific, complex concepts, for example.

For further reflections on a related issue, see Max Harris’ recent post on But Can They Suffer: “Effective Animal Advocacy in China: Perspectives from a UK Activist and Tourist”.

Evidence

In the past year or so, I have seen The Humane League and Open Cages expand into the UK. Veganuary are currently hiring to expand into the USA. I have also seen several new EAA groups spring up in the USA, such as Better Eating. I use these examples not to criticise the specific organisations or decisions, but merely to point out that EAA organisations are continuing to focus significant efforts and resouorces on expanding further through developed, Western countries. In some expansions of EAA organisations within Western, developed countries, a niche is being filled that other organisations have either neglected or lacked the resources to fill. Whilst Compassion In World Farming have been working on chicken welfare for decades, the rapid rate of success achieved by The Humane League in the UK proves that they have made a valuable contribution. Similarly, even if PETA have been working on banning fur in the UK for decades, Open Cages have brought an EAA perspective and a different campaigning style.

There have been some efforts to expand into areas where animal advocacy is neglected and potentially highly important; ProVeg have a team focusing on China, for example. The Humane League have staff in Mexico, and Animal Equality is active in South America more widely. Lewis Bollard has been keen to fund work in countries in Asia and South America, both with EA Grants and Open Philanthropy Project. Excluding money given to international meta groups (you might disagree with my categorisation here),  69% of the money from 2018 animal welfare EA Funds grants have been to “international grassroots groups” or groups in Asia and Latin America. For OPP, the figure is 32% (see my quick calculations here).

Nevertheless, the growing number of groups active in western, developed countries and the relatively small number of groups active in Asia, South America and Africa suggests to me that there is still an imbalance to be addressed. Whilst Lewis Bollard is funding groups outside of North America and Europe, the main focus of most of Animal Charity Evaluators’ top recommended charities and standout charities remains in those areas, and so I suspect that most money from smaller donors in the western, developed world is still focusing on causes closer to home.

Effective Animal Advocacy in China: Perspectives from a UK Activist and Tourist

Post author: Max Harris. Max is a UK volunteer for The Humane League who has travelled around East Asia.

In December 2016, Lewis Bollard of Open Philanthropy Project laid out his vision for improving animal welfare in China. This post is intended to complement the work of Bollard and others, by throwing out some ideas based on my personal experiences in China, and considering what the EA community knows about this issue currently. I shall begin by evaluating how successful attempts to reduce animal suffering have been in the west. Using this information I will look at the situation in China (mainly), and make suggestions about what may be the best methods of reducing suffering over there.

Animal activism has been going for a while in the western world, with varying degrees of success. Here is my take on some of the most successful things which have helped the cause in the West:

  • Vegan products now have a much larger share of the market than they used too, plant-based milk sales growing 61% in the US over the last 5 years for example, which makes reducing animal product consumption much smaller and easier to try out for those interested.
  • We aren’t solely reliant on the number of vegans/vegetarians to drive the consumption of non animal products, various market research (e.g. here) suggests that a large amount of consumers for non animal products are meat reducers. This means a percentage of people have been convinced that it’s worth leaving animals of their plates for at least some of their meals of the week, for whatever reason. Tobias Leenaert has written about the importance of this in his book.  
  • Groups like The Humane League and Mercy For Animals have successfully campaigned to get commitments from companies to improve the lives of livestock in the worst conditions (see here for a report from THL).
  • The clean meat industry is making significant progress, some sources saying it could be in stores by then end of 2018.
  • There are large amounts of material available to help those who want to transition to a vegan diet (youtube, documentaries, vegfests, veg societies at unis) that make it easier for people to transition and not be alone in their journey.

With all the above listed out it’s easy to see a light at the end of the tunnel where in a some number of years the number of animals forced to live in horrific conditions is significantly reduced. However it hasn’t all been perfect, there are some challenges which include the following:

  • The number of animals being slaughtered has increased in the US.
    • Consumption of pigs and cows has gone down, whilst consumption of fish and chickens has gone up. This is an issue because you have to kill more chickens to get the same amount of meat as when you kill one cow (see here for more).
    • This is likely due to the health benefits of avoiding eating cows and pigs are becoming more apparent, so people are avoiding them in terms of “healthier meats”.
  • Vegetarians and vegans have a hard time sticking to it.
    • I personally would say this is because sometimes we demand perfection from people. If a person is 80%+ vegan then they’re still doing a significantly more good than if they aren’t vegan at all so that should be encourage and not chastised. Five 80% vegans does us more good than 1 vegan and 4 non vegans. Basically we should be more accepting of people who aren’t completely vegan.

So there’s still some things to iron out, but with this all in mind let’s have a look at how things are going in the China (and a little in Japan).

This is going to be quite anecdotal, but one of the reasons I’m writing on this topic in particular is that I recently spent about a month travelling around Japan and China. I prepared myself for a drop in the variety of options of foods I could have, of course. However I was actually pleasantly surprised to find that Tokyo has over 50 vegan only restaurants on Happy Cow (which may not reflect the full local variety). Japan in general feels quite heavily influenced by western trends. This lends itself to relatively smooth expansion by Western groups;  the American charity The Humane League has expanded into Japan with some success.

After visiting Tokyo though I hopped over the pond to China to find a very different picture. The level of respect for animals seemed to be quite minimal. In other parts of the world I have been to, when I explain that I don’t eat meat, they generally understand, even if they assume that I’m “probably one of those hippies that cares about animals or something”. In China, though, outside of areas where there are temples that generally serve veggie food, when I explained that I didn’t want meat, it was generally a look of confusion that I got. Why on earth would I not want to eat meat? The level of respect the general public holds for animals like pets seems barely present in China (think of the Yulin dog festival). This translates horrifically into the scale of the farming and legal protection for the animals on said farms (although it is improving slightly). In one survey, a majority of Chinese respondents said they had never heard of animal welfare and/or approve of factory farming in general! Thankfully this does show some signs of improving thanks to a new government initiative to introduce basic animal welfare teachings into schools, but this is far from enough.

In my time in China, I travelled in sort of a line from Shanghai to X’ian, and I experienced quite a mix of city living and small towns where they were even shocked to see foreigners. In the larger cities like Shanghai, when I used Happy cow, I found  about 8 places with vegetarian options (as opposed to Tokyo’s 50+ vegan eateries). I didn’t come across any dedicated vegan/vegetarian places in my time in China. Luckily, Chinese restaurants and people in general are very friendly and flexible, so I was still able to eat out vegan all the time. I pretty much just had to insist on the phrase 不要肉 – Bùyào ròu, which translates to “I don’t want meat” – a fair amount. They’ll happily just invent something or edit a menu item to serve you some noodles and vegetables fried in oil! Also dairy is not commonly part of the diet in China so you don’t have to worry about that so much, just eggs and meat.

Moving on from my anecdotes about my travels, the reason I’m writing this blog post is that the level of respect for animals I observed in china is concerning. Given the size of China’s ever growing population and the fact that the country is responsible for the highest amount of amount of slaughter for any country in the world and that number is rising by the year. I think it would be an effective action to look into how to best reduce animal suffering in China.

China graph

The graph above (data sourced from here) demonstrates graphically that China controls the fate of nearly 20% of the world’s animals. Lewis Bollard mentions mentions in his post about China about the scale of the issues, and has some stats demonstrating how China confines as many pigs as the rest of the world combined, as well as other shocking things.

First off, let’s start with the negatives and what we should avoid: I think a hugely important approach to avoid in China is the environment and health being emphasised too much by animal charities as a reason to ditch meat (because it leads to an increase in consumption of smaller animals like fish and chicken). From my limited personal experience observing the haggling that goes on in some parts of China, and the openness that they seem to have to street food, I’d honestly expect price to be the main driving factor in food adoption. Granted I don’t have any evidence to back this up, but I hope a different angle like that could be tried out.  

There is some very interesting research however about how a large portion of Chinese like to import food from the west and the primary driving factor for this appears to be food safety. It’s quite easy to highlight the safety issues with fish (pollution in the sea making fish contain scary chemicals) and chicken. So perhaps another way to go would be market plantbased products as a safer option?

Another thing I think it would be prudent for the movement in China to avoid, would be being seen as the West trying to impose their views on China. The activities charities like Mercy For Animals and The Humane League do when campaigning against businesses probably wouldn’t fly in China either. An organisation from outside China campaigning against a Chinese business would likely get shut down by the government very quickly; China has a history of protecting chinese businesses over western ones, even when Chinese businesses are in the wrong, committing something like copyright fraud. From this, I think it would be a good idea to have seperate Chinese based charities which are set up in China which we can support (perhaps rather than extensions of American ones? ProVeg is setting up a branch in China currently, so hopefully I’m incorrect about this and their expansion goes smoothly.

I think my main issue with the animal charities in China is that, to my knowledge, none of them are anywhere near as effective as Animal Chariy Evaluators’ top recommended charities. My reason for saying this is there is no charity (that I can find) set up and going which is dedicated solely to reducing meat consumption, which is the leading cause of animal death and suffering. My favourite chinese charity is probably TACN (mentioned below), who spend time promoting a vegan diet but also spend a significant amount of effort rehoming dogs. While this is lovely, if they focussed solely on farm animals/vegan diet promotion, they’d save more animals overall. I do recognise though that there are fewer dog adoption charities in China than the West so it’s not as if another charity will do this if they don’t. This means it’d probably be a very difficult decision to stop doing this work for the dogs now that they’ve started, as it’d essentially be condemning them to live on the streets.

From this point onwards let’s take a look at some current animal charities in China and from that I’ll draw some observations based on what I think is lacking. Here are some animal charities of note in China:

  • ProVeg
    • Is working to set up in China (hopefully will fill the role I mentioned earlier when they are up and going!)
    • Hosted a vegfest in Shanghai which was quite popular
  • TACN (Towards a compassionate nation)
    • A Chinese charity
    • Primarily focuses of saving dogs and anti dog meat
      • I think this is still quite high priority work because dogs are really terrible to farm because you have to feed them meat which multiplies the amount of animals that die depending on the type of meat that is fed to the dogs
    • Works with Veganuary to promote veganism in China, especially around the time of January. They claim to be a big part of the 3000+ participants that signed up to Veganuary in China this year
  • GoalBlue
    • Promotes environmental living
    • Promotes eating chicken and fish over cows and pigs which is terrible if you’re concerned about animal suffering.
    • I personally would not recommend donating here due to the promoting of eating smaller animals which increases suffering.
  • No To Dog Meat
    • Lobbies to ban the dog meat trade in countries where lobbying is allowed and in countries where lobbying is not allowed they pressure other countries to put pressure on them.

I could go on but pretty much all of them are dog meat or dog rescue charities. Based on this, I think the core of what we need in China and possibly Asia more widely is:

  1. General farm animal charities
  2. General animal welfare promotion charities
  3. Charities which measure their effectiveness and are transparent
  4. Charities that promote a vegan lifestyle (there’s ProVeg and TACN but those were all I could find).
  5. I think we could potentially benefit largely from having a charity which tries to put out cheap plant based meat/vegan products in china, but this one is just a hunch based off anecdotal evidence from me.
  6. More effort just trying things out, there really haven’t been that many intervention types tried in China, so we need to see what works and gather evidence.

It’s fantastic to see that work has already begun towards several of these goals, funded by the Open Philanthropy Project – which has made 16 grants to charities operating in China, which has helped to fund, for example, advocate summits in China – and by EA Grants.

Also one thing to note is that if clean meat becomes cheaper to produce than normal meat then I think we can probably win China if it can be emphasised that clean meat is a safer (and cheaper) product than normal meat. However, this successful transition is not guaranteed, and there’s plenty of work to be done in making the lives of animals better before this point far in the future.

(The photo at the top is a picture of some vegan food from Max’s travels in China)