Balancing Heart And Mind
The year was 1997. I was with a group of about 40 activists protesting outside of the Nordstrom flagship store in downtown Seattle. The issue was fur, which Nordstrom continues to sell today. At an agreed-upon signal, we split into smaller groups and entered the store from multiple locations. We spent the next ten minutes marching through the store, waving signs and chanting raucously at the stunned customers and worried employees.
It was a bold action, though nobody was arrested. For many of the activists involved, it was cathartic – a vent for our anger and frustration with the suffering caused by privileged consumers. But you would have a hard time convincing me that our protest was effective. For starters, even in the cold of winter, a tiny minority of people in Seattle wear any sort of fur. More importantly, we activists had lots of passion, but little strategy.
Two decades ago, this was true of nearly the entire animal protection movement. We led with our hearts and not with our minds. Today, a new generation of leaders is embracing more thoughtful and strategic forms of animal advocacy. But there is a risk of taking it too far and being overly calculated in our work. Rather than polarizing ourselves into ideologues or effective altruists, we should all strive to take a balanced approach with our methods and our cause selection.
Passion Should Be Strategic
Like many advocates, when I was new to the animal movement I was seduced by the idea that people would change once they heard the truth about animal suffering. It worked for me, so of course it should work for others, too. Despite decades of evidence to the contrary, some people still cling to this belief. For the most part, these are new activists who have yet to process their visceral frustration and grasp the long-term nature of animal advocacy.
For me, so-called “disruptions” are an example of this frustration boiling over in sometimes ineffective ways. These usually involve accosting people at events or in supermarkets and shouting facts and stories about animal suffering. The often-stated goal is not to influence people but to get media and create more advocates, which I would argue is too low of a bar. Like my march through Nordstrom 20 years ago, the activists seem energized, but I doubt the speak-outs are effective.
Some long-time advocates also perpetuate the farce of overnight animal liberation. Gary Francione, arguably the movement’s most prominent ideologue, claims that “the world is vegan, if you want it.” He belittles all forms of advocacy other than promoting veganism as a moral baseline. While Francione might be the most egregious example, he’s far from alone. Ideologues abound, mostly identifying themselves by the co-opted term “abolitionist” – defining it per their own limited perspectives.
Ideologues represent a vocal, but thankfully small minority of animal advocates. I am probably most concerned about ideologues who claim to be experts. These are the people who call research “pseudoscience” when they dislike the findings. In some cases, they question not just the accuracy of the conclusions, but also the integrity of the researchers. Needless to say, if they know of more effective forms of animal advocacy, we pragmatists would be excited to see their evidence.
Effective Altruists Should Look At History
Yes, I self-identify as a “pragmatist” and also an “effective animal advocate.” I’ve been using those terms for nearly 20 years, mainly through my work with Faunalytics. Much more recently, the term “effective animal advocacy” (EAA) has developed as an off-shoot of the larger “effective altruism” (EA) movement. This approach to nonprofit work and philanthropy is based on the notion of using our limited resources to help others as much as possible.
When it comes to animal advocacy, I’ve been singing this song for a very long time. Doing as much as possible for animals with limited resources is the reason that we saw a need for an organization focused on research and evaluation. We founded Faunalytics to help make those concepts part of the movement’s culture. So I’m grateful that effective altruists who focus on animals are bringing a new capacity for quantitative thought to the animal movement.
Despite my gratitude, I have some concerns about how the EAA movement (specifically) may be choosing its priorities and with some of the directions in which it may be taking animal advocacy. Here are four of them:
- The Shoulders of Giants. EAA is relatively new, as mentioned. Many of the people involved are also relatively new advocates. While the perspectives they bring are both refreshing and important, they sometimes lack the depth of experience held by those who have been working in the field longer. I think more EAAs should read more about animal advocacy than just Peter Singer (try books by Norm Phelps and Melanie Joy for starters). For the reasons given above, it also seems a disproportionately large number of new EAAs are favoring ideological approaches. For examples, just check out social media comments about “reducetarian” efforts. While most of these people will probably become pragmatists eventually, I think it’s an unfortunate short-term trend.
- Defining Winnability. In part because of the relative newness of many EAAs, their perception of tractability can be skewed (in my opinion). For my entire advocacy life, I’ve encouraged others to focus on farmed animals. As a movement, I believe we should devote much more of our resources to those issues. However, we still have a lot of uncertainty about the major types of programs for farmed animals. For instance, most of the leafleting and video outreach studies that have been done have had inconclusive results, and we have very few longitudinal studies. Committing to one cause area at the expense of arguably more winnable issues (e.g., policies or laws that codify change on non-farmed animal issues) might be doing a disservice to animals.
- Cause Neutrality Gone Wild. Despite my previous point, I think the benefits of cause neutrality (making decisions strictly based on how much suffering we expect them to eliminate) are many. It is this guiding principle that will allow us to reduce the most suffering per hour or dollar that we invest in a program. However, it can also lead to what I think are some dangerous conclusions. For me, one of these is the growing EAA interest in “natural” wild animal suffering not caused by humans. In an approach I call “paving the world,” some thoughtful people consider destroying habitat a viable option to reduce future wild animal populations and eliminate that source of potential suffering. I have serious concerns about these kinds of approaches to reducing suffering and their consequences.
- Follow the Money. Lastly, the focus on effectiveness has led not just to more focus on farmed animals, but also to more concentrated support of a small number of animal organizations. This is somewhat expected, but it has a downside. As funding concentrates among a handful of groups with similar activities, two things happen. First, we invest a lot of resources in just a few tactics despite the uncertainty we have about their effectiveness. Second, we stifle innovation, which often comes from smaller animal organizations working in under-served (and under-funded) areas. This creates a risk of ignoring potentially highly effective animal charities or interventions coming from unfamiliar organizations, including some that may not focus exclusively on animals used for food.
Finding the Right Balance
I lost patience with dogmatic ideologues a long time ago. More importantly, I suspect the animals are losing patience with ineffective, ideologically motivated tactics. On the other hand, I have some concern that the EAA movement is seeking to supplant rather than complement the previously existing animal protection movement, which would be a mistake. So, what do I suggest?
First off, ignore any ideologue who claims that their approach (e.g., vegan education) is the only acceptable form of animal advocacy. As I discussed in a previous blog, it’s not that simple. Second, think hard before engaging in confrontational tactics. Do they serve a bigger purpose than just letting you vent your frustrations and gain some notoriety? Third, we need to invest more in evaluation and increase our transparency regarding both methods and results.
It’s on this third point that Faunalytics has been focusing for more than 18 years. For the EAA movement to achieve its potential, it needs to provide more evidence of tractability and success for particular cause areas. To do that, we need more research on both overall strategies and specific interventions. While there is a lot of good work being done to those ends, it also seems that some EAAs are making big decisions and commitments based on limited data and uncertain outcomes.
The ideologues are long on heart and short on strategy, which I believe hinders their effectiveness. On the other hand, some effective animal advocates are long on strategy while being unfamiliar with the animal protection movement’s rich and diverse history. Let’s try to find a balance that focuses on pragmatic ways to reduce animal suffering, tempered by the experience of long-time advocates, a deeper understanding of tractability, and more respect for the natural world.