Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Effective altruists -- lifestyle changes for animals vs. the environment

A good question from the Effective Altruism group on Facebook: "why EAs [people in the effective altruism community] often think that making changes to their personal lifestyles in order to reduce factory farming is worth it while hardly any EAs seem to think that making changes in their personal lifestyles in order to reduce global warming is not worth it."

Here are some guesses:

  1. When you choose not to consume either animal products or energy, there isn't a one-to-one correspondence with how much is consumed in total. Less consumption decreases prices, and decreased prices lead to more consumption. So to know how much less product is consumed, you need to know the elasticity of price with consumption, and the elasticity of consumption with respect to price. This article from Peter Hurford has some links that might be helpful for thinking through these for animal products. I haven't looked for analysis of the elasticities for e.g. energy usage, but I strongly suspect that decreased energy usage has almost no effect on total energy usage, especially if you account for higher fossil fuel prices leading to increased research in clean energy (and lower prices to delaying research).
    • Please comment with more useful references for these questions (both energy and animals) if you have them.
  2. It may be easier to draw a line in the sand with animals ("no eating animals" or "no eating animal products") than with environmentalist changes, which might be a large number of different changes (though the latter does have some lines, like "no car" or "live in a dense city"). This may matter for two reasons:
    1. If the two changes are equally effective, then the one with an easier "line in the sand" may be better for motivation/self-control reasons.
    2. The one with the line in the sand ("I boycott animal product!") may be more effective as a symbol for a political movement. (I personally suspect that all of these changes have negligible direct effects compared to their potential effects as symbols in political movements.)
  3. The animals may just be that much more important, either in terms of the problems, the potential solutions, or the potential impact we can have.
  4. Overlapping with (3), it seems like many more people outside the EA community are working on environmentalist problems than animal problems. Maybe we're focusing on the under-served problems.
  5. The animal-related lifestyle changes may also have environmental impact, so all things being equal, maybe people want to "kill two birds with one stone" (please, does anyone have a version of that metaphor that doesn't involve killing?). I really hesitate to bring this one up -- if we were enslaving, torturing, and eating billions of humans, would you feel comfortable pointing out the environmental effects, or would you just insist we STOP IT NOW?
This is all very speculative, of course! Some of these thoughts were already touched on in the FB discussion, but I decided it would be useful to pull my thoughts together in one place.

Many EA's seem more attached to the direct impact of not eating animal products than I am, so I think (1) may be the most important.

1 comment:

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