Recently, I went to EA Global at Google HQ; it was the first of three EA Global conferences held across the world, the last of which is taking place this weekend at Oxford University.
EA Global is all about effective altruism, the movement upon which Animal Charity Evaluators was originally founded. Effective altruists use evidence and reason to determine the best ways to improve our world, including causes as varied as poverty reduction, global health improvements, existential risk mitigation, and, of course, reducing animal suffering.
Not everyone at the conference was working on animal advocacy, but it was well represented by both speakers and attendees. Several people at the conference had lively discussions on the merits of helping animals as compared to other high-value impact opportunities. Many attendees have dedicated their lives to effectively making the world the best it can be, and quite a few of them ended up deciding that the best way to do this was to help animals. A full third of EAs are veg*n, and many EAs consider animal advocacy to be a major pillar of the EA movement.
Among fellow animal advocates, it’s rare to see arguments about where animal suffering ranks among competing causes. Generally animal advocates already agree that saving animals now is the priority, and so discussion is less philosophical and more action-oriented. But at EA Global, everyone was waxing philosophical on animal issues.
In his talk, Jeff Sebo pointed out that if we value future animals similarly to animals living in the present, then future non-human animals might very well be the top priority, since we have every reason to expect that they will outnumber humans by several orders of magnitude on into the future. This is especially true if we terraform planets, since plant-only ecosystems aren’t possible without extensive robotic interventions. For an idea of just how mind-bogglingly big these numbers can get, listen to Nick Bostrom’s talk on astronomical stakes.
Andrew Critch made the excellent observation that human existential risk is especially important for animal welfare, since if humans go extinct, then we can expect wild animal suffering to continue for another 4 billion years or so. If one’s goal is to minimize animal suffering, one plausible method might be to ensure that humans don’t go extinct, since nature isn’t likely to give us a second shot at creating a species that shares our morality.
Nick Cooney highlighted an amazing statistic of 2 cents per animal spared by using corporate outreach, and claimed that the cost per animal spared would go even lower by reusing the same techniques with other companies. This statistic was repeated several times during the conference, usually with skepticism on how it could possibly be that cheap. For reference, ACE’s latest estimate is $0.21 per animal spared, which is still much cheaper than human causes.
Several EA Global attendees expressed concern about the level of evidence the animal advocacy community has so far compiled on which interventions work best. This criticism is one that we should take seriously, and thankfully we have people in the community working on this issue right now. This is the true power that the effective altruism community brings to the animal advocacy movement: a level of scientific and philosophical rigor aimed toward ensuring we accomplish the most good as effectively as possible, alongside the funding to back it up.
It’s time for the greater animal advocacy community to learn more about effective altruism. The final leg of EA Global is happening in Oxford this weekend (August 28-30), but you don’t have to travel to England to be a part of event. There are EAGx events happening across the globe where you can meet up with local EAs and experience the online version of the conference in a group setting, or you can check out the livestream to live out the conference from the comfort of your home.
Take the time to see what EA Global has to offer, since it not only has the capacity to grow the animal welfare movement by bringing in newcomers to the cause, but also to help us identify ways that we can improve how we approach our goal of reducing animal suffering. Plus, you might learn a little bit more about how we can best improve our world among other cause areas.
Animal Advocacy | EA Global Conference – August 1, 2015 from CyperusMedia.com on Vimeo. Jacy Reese, Jeff Sebo, and Nick Cooney talk animal advocacy at EA Global: Google HQ.
Dave Crawford says
If I’m not mistaken, we’re using rather loose terms here. I believe “sparing a life” and “saving a life” in this context (examining costs) actually would more accurately be termed “sparing suffering”, because being moved from a cage to a free range facility doesn’t save your life – it makes it better while you have it, but it doesn’t save it. In the case of chickens, you’re still being killed long before you reach what would be about the age of 8 in human years. That’s not a life spared or saved. Respectfully and with tremendous gratitude for the work of almost all animal advocates, Dave
Allison Smith says
It’s tricky to talk about the number of animals helped by various interventions, because as you point out, they aren’t all doing the same thing. It’s especially hard with the character limits on Twitter, so I think we might want to give Scott a pass on his wording. 🙂
You’re right that Nick Cooney’s estimate quoted above isn’t the cost for saving a life. While that’s ambiguous in the brief mention here, it’s clear in his talk that he means this only as the cost for sparing a hen the additional suffering that comes with battery cage production systems, and that the animals affected will still suffer in other ways and be killed earlier than their natural lifespan.
The estimate quoted from ACE’s work is actually an estimate of the cost to spare an animal all the suffering associated with life in industrial agriculture, because most of the programs taken into account there aim to reduce the number of animals in industrial agriculture overall (for instance, by promoting veganism and vegetarianism). This still isn’t the kind of “lives saved” that sanctuaries provide for farm animals, or (to take an example from other EA work) malaria nets provide to children; the animals spared won’t be bred for a life of suffering at all, but that generally means they simply won’t be born. But it’s closer, and something that does make sense to term “lives spared” depending on your viewpoint.