November 2, 2018
There are a tremendous number of animals in the wild, and many of them suffer horribly. But it’s not easy to figure out how to make things better for wild animals, or when we should. To figure out how best to help wild animals, we’ll need a lot more people involved. So how do we reach those people? In this panel discussion from Effective Altruism Global 2018: San Francisco, Ozy Brennan, Kieran Greig, and Abraham Rowe offer their answers to this question, and Persis Eskander moderates. A transcript of the panel is below, which we have lightly edited for clarity.
Persis: Today, the goal for this whiteboard session is to better understand what are some successful communication techniques or strategies that we could be applying depending on different target audiences that are relevant for wild animal suffering. So, it's going to be broken down into four categories. The first is basic messaging. The second is communicating wild animal suffering to domain experts. So, for example, people in academia. The third is communicating wild animal suffering to people who are interested in animal rights and animal welfare but who are not quite convinced that we should be focusing on this over more traditional issues. And the last one is on the best way to talk about interventions.
Persis: So I'm going to start with asking each of the panelists to give us an example of basic messaging that's been really successful and ways that they've been able to communicate with someone who's totally unfamiliar with wild animal suffering. And also, feel free to point out areas in which things haven't quite worked out as well. So, we might start with Ozy and then go down.
Ozy: Hi. So I think one of the things that is really important for me in communicating about wild animal suffering is that I very much try to be authentic and I try to say the things that I genuinely believe. I think that there's a real tendency for people to be like, “Oh no. We have to say things that are really calculated to appeal to everyone.” And I don't think that that's a good way to grow a movement. I think that both ethically we should be honest about what our true thoughts are and in terms of getting people who are really value-aligned… it might be helpful in the short term, but in the long run, you need the people that you're going to get by actually saying what you believe.
Ozy: Another thing that I found is helpful in basic messaging is thinking about the objections that people always have and sort of, don't wait for them to bring it up and being like, for example, I usually, when I'm talking to people about wild animal suffering, I mention… I bring up by myself that nobody is going to do anything, nobody is going to go out there and genetically engineer lions so that they only eat grass tomorrow, we're going to do lots of research before we do anything. We're going to start with smaller scale projects. There's a lot of uncertainty about ecology and we're totally aware of that and this is something that we're concerned about at Wild Animal Suffering Research and at other organizations.
Ozy: And another thing that I tend to bring up is that, what I like to say is that right now, a lot of wildlife management has a dual purpose. It is managed for human benefit in terms of things like recreation, going out to nature, and also in terms of things like flood control. And it's also managed for conservation purposes. And so, my ideal thing would be to have it so that wildlife management is done with an eye towards human benefit and conservation and the welfare of the animals themselves. And so, I think that that ends up helping because it's not like I'm opposing humans and wild animals or conservation and wild animals but being like, all of these things are important. Let's try to figure out a way to do wildlife management so that we can do all of them.
Kieran: Yeah. That was a very detailed and comprehensive answer. My answer is just quite basic. I usually say something along the lines of wild animals do matter and the conditions for wild animals don't seem great. I try and stay away from the more radical, fringe ideas of wild animals being crazily net negative, or the bulk of moral value is in insects. Yeah, this is basically my like, basic messaging approach.
Abraham: Yeah, similarly, I think I like to focus on the scope of suffering in nature but also, really talk about the experiences of individuals. So, compare sort of the survival strategy of say, humans who spend a lot of time nurturing their young all the way until they can basically take care of themselves, to that of other animals where a lot of their young are going to die at a young age, probably painfully. I definitely avoid talking about speculative strategies to reduce wild animal suffering unless it… someone's really pushing what we can do. And when that does happen, I think it's… so Utility Farm has done a couple studies on what kind of messaging is most effective for talking about that, and pretty much describing the exact same strategy or intervention using different verbs will make a pretty radical difference in people's receptivity to that. So, using, talking about addressing wild animal suffering by stewarding nature or participating in a natural ecosystem as opposed to intervening in the lives of animals in the wild, just people are a lot more willing, it seems like to listen to what you have to say when you use language that they're used to and comfortable with like that.
Persis: So, two takeaways that I've gotten from what the three of you have said is that, the first is trying to make it relatable and that means maybe, referring to issues that people are already in support of. And then, maybe drawing that further, taking the inferences further. And the second one is trying to find compromises between value systems. One question that I always feel people ask me whenever I talk about wild animal suffering to someone who's totally unfamiliar with it is, well, suffering in the wild is natural. I mean, that's pretty straightforward argument that a lot of people make. And so, we have this act omission bias. Do you have thoughts on ways that we can address that?
Kieran: Yeah so, one thing that I would usually go there is that within humans, there's also a lot of natural suffering, and people are fine with eradicating diseases for humans. When we apply this reasoning to humans, it just that doesn't seem to stand up. So, I would point that out and then say if we kind of, follow that reasoning for wild animals, it just doesn't seem to hold up for me.
Ozy: Yeah. I think that my point of view would be very much, well, malaria is natural. Like, 50% of all children dying before the age of five is natural. There's lots of horrible things that are natural. And I think that it is frankly speciesist to say we're going to try to get rid of natural things that are horrible for humans but if you're a wild animal, you're on your own, sorry.
Abraham: Yeah, I feel like a lot of people who express things like this have a bit of misanthropic view towards nature. We don't like the idea of humans coming in and sort of, messing with nature. And I like to kind of play off that, and push on that and ask them, “If what you see in nature is sort of the beauty and awe and grandeur, if that's what's valuable in natural systems, is that not sort of, ascribing human values onto nature?” And then, pushing on the question of well what's actually important about natural systems and I think a lot of people can come around to the idea that what really matters in nature is the lives of the beings who inhabit it.
Persis: Great, let's move on to one that I'm particularly interested in, communicating wild animal suffering to domain experts. So one disagreement that I think I've had with a lot of people who are really invested in working in wild animal welfare is the extent to which we might need domain experts to be value aligned. So how important is it to improve our understanding of wild animal suffering, for domain experts to care about wild animal welfare and be motivated by a desire to improve the wellbeing of wild animals, as opposed to just being capable of doing empirical research that we then find valuable? So I'll start with Abraham.
Abraham: Yeah, so I don't think domain experts are very aligned right now. In my experience a lot of people are really open to the idea that we should know more about the welfare of animals in the wild but they stop at the step of, we should do something to improve their welfare. And I think to some extent that's okay. I think there's definitely a lot of valuable research that can be done by biologists and ecologists just to learn more about the welfare of animals currently, but in the long run we're really going to need some kind of value alignment in order to, especially to just kind of assess how we can impact environments. So on the regulatory side there's already a huge treasure trove of data from the EPA and other similar agencies in other countries on how humans impact ecosystems when they build subdivisions, or do other sorts of projects like that. There's a very robust field and I think a lot of the work of translating that work into the language of welfare will require people who are really invested in doing these projects to improve the lives of wild animals.
Kieran: Yeah so I think one critical distinction here is pioneers within the field versus those who then join the field after the field has been started. I think that for the pioneers who are initially in this field, that is probably going to be more tractable that they are value aligned. I think another critical distinction here is whether the research is on these nitty gritty empirical questions or whether the research is on prioritizing different questions. If it is on prioritizing different questions, I would say they very much need to be value aligned. If it is for things like nitty gritty questions, I think that they don't really need to be value aligned, I think they just need to have good research skills and research skills can be kind of orthogonal to this value alignment.
Ozy: I think personally having researchers that care about wild animal suffering is very important. It's true there is a lot of information out there that's valuable for wild animal suffering that we collect for all sort of reasons. There's information about chronic stress in animals that people do because they're studying human depression and comparing it to wild animals. There's research about animals in zoos, there's research about epidemiology, there's tons of research about wildlife diseases that's intended to protect farmed animals. But the fact of the matter is that you're not going to get research on the most important issues of wild animal suffering if they're primarily being done either for human value or the value of domestic animals or because of scientific interest.
Another thing that I think is really important for domain experts, I don't think was talked about before is that domain experts have a lot of credibility with governments and I think that if we're going to have long-term change for wild animals, a lot of that is going to be done through governments because governments end up setting the policies about wildlife refuges and other places where lots of wildlife live.
Persis: I have a follow up question. To what extent do you think it might be useful to work with academics who maybe aren't value aligned in the beginning and then see how far along the process you can move them? Or do you think perhaps values spreading within academia is a less effective route than starting directly with value aligned academics and having them grow the movement for us?
Abraham: I don't think they're mutually exclusive, I think we should be doing both. The people who are published already, who bring legitimacy are going to be academics, so having them do some of the outreach within academia is very important. But I also think we can just by building broader public awareness of these issues, we can make them seem more normalized and make people more comfortable researching them in general, so both are important.
Kieran: Yeah I think it's a really good question. I don't have strong views on it. One thing I would say is just pick up on what Abraham just said but I think it is important to have academics promoting these ideas to other academics. I think it's a lot harder to do the value spreading from kind of the non-profit sector into academia, it would be a lot better for an academic, for an ecologist or a biologist, whoever it is to take this on and to promote it to their peers.
Ozy: Yeah, I feel like I don't really have a good sense right of what are the best ways to do spreading of anti animal suffering values to academia are. I think we should try a bunch of different things and see what works.
Persis: So, I'd be interested in your experiences in how receptive domain experts have been and it would be great if you could give an example of a conversation that you've had, maybe one that was either… where the academic was very receptive or one where they were very unreceptive. And where you think the conversation went well or poorly.
Abraham: Yeah I think I've a lot of incredibly productive conversations about the need for knowing more about the welfare of animals in the wild with academics. But I can think of multiple particular cases where that conversation has gone really well and the person has looked into kind of the historical background of our movement and gotten very wary of being associated with the movement, and I think that's a major issue. For people to kind of… the first content that they see when they Google "wild animal suffering" to be maybe not super accessible or be focused on very obscure issues or controversial issues. And so I can think multiple particular examples where people have kind of come back to me after I've had a very productive conversation with them and expressed some hesitance to continue working on this.
I think the other thing is, I've heard a lot of people say that they're interested in it, but a lack of funding is going to stop them from pursuing research in it. And so I think there's probably a lot of opportunity to reach out to… I mean there's individual decision makers in large scientific foundations that are doing funding, who good outreach to might be able to make a significant difference, because there's people who think this is important who just think they can't get the funding they would need right now to do research that they'd like to do. So I think there's potential there as well.
Kieran: So I have fairly limited experience with this. So I feel like I do not have a great sense of it. I think that one thing to bear in mind with this question is that the academic field is split along different kind of disciplines so we have philosophy, biology, ecology, psychology. It's going to be different for different disciplines. I think that we'll need different approaches for different disciplines. I think it's also an empirical question and I think that something that could be useful here is having a survey of biologists or a survey of ecologists and seeing what their baseline views are. I think that something else that is important to communicate is that there is funders that are interested in this, so that you can be funded for this. The other thing I would say is that there's existing literature on this, and the other thing that I would say is that potentially some of the early publications in this field could be very prestigious because later on they would receive many citations.
Ozy: One of the things I've noticed that is interesting to me is that there's a very positive response to wild animal suffering stuff from philosophers. There are several philosophers I can think of who are working on it fairly intensively. There's a surprisingly positive response from economists for some reason, but the natural sciences tend to be much lower uptake I've noticed, I'm not sure why that is. I am puzzled about the number of economists that are interested in wild animal suffering.
And another thing I've noticed is that there are a lot of people, academics I think in the natural sciences who care about wild animals, and believe that we should help wild animals, and think that the best thing that we can do for wild animals is to leave them alone. And I think that this is a fairly common position, and so I think… I'm not sure to what extent it's right and I think that that's something that we're going to have to engage with as a movement is the position of "yes wild animals matter but we're not going to be able to improve their lives anymore than just by not polluting and not feeding them and so on and so forth."
Persis: So two hurdles that have already come up are funding constraints and perhaps being too controversial too early on. I can think of another hurdle in terms of value differences which I think Ozy also mentioned. I'd be interested in your views on what other major hurdles there might be for academics getting involved, and so it would be interesting to see if there's a distinction between your experience talking to people in philosophy or people in economics or people in biology. And what some possible solutions might be. So if someone, if an academic tells you they're funding constrained, what is a way around that other than the obvious of giving their university funding, but how can we better support them?
Kieran: Yeah so that's a really good question. One thing… so one approach that could be helpful here is having wild animal suffering as part of their research, not as the focus of their research, so incorporating that into their existing research, that could be useful in terms of them getting funding for that. I think that another thing that could be useful is focusing on academics who already have the tenure so they have the freedom to focus on these issues if they wish rather than focusing on these up and coming academics who are very much constrained in what they can publish on.
Ozy: One project I think is very interesting is the effective thesis project, which is a project that lists a bunch of thesis ideas that effective altruists are interested in that are in a variety of different fields, with the idea that people who are doing a masters thesis or a PhD thesis or maybe even an undergraduate thesis would be able to look at them and then do work on these EA topics. I believe that a substantial number of the ideas in the effective thesis projects are wild animal suffering oriented right now.
Abraham: Yeah I think there's a lot of potential in different kinds of advocacy within academia that aren't necessarily getting published research, especially editorial advocacy in journals. I think there's room for bibliographies on stuff that's already been published that is legitimate and there's room for just people arguing that there's more of a need for this field, and that usually doesn't have to be well funded research, that's something many academics are able to do with the resources they already have, and I think working with academics to get those published in legitimate science journals is definitely a way to help just create buzz about the field and get it established.
Persis: That's great, let's move on now to communicating with animal rights or welfare advocates. When talking about wild animal suffering with advocates who are skeptical, what do you think is… well, how would you weigh a focus on social change versus a focus on pragmatic interventions, and I guess this question in part requires an understanding of, why might an advocate be skeptical? And so it might be interesting to first mention some of the skepticism that advocates have raised and then how you best think you can address it. Maybe we can start with Ozy?
Ozy: Actually in my experience, a lot of the animal rights people I've talked to have been really receptive about wild animal suffering stuff, and in my experience the big objections that people have had is okay, but can we do something about this that is going to be a better way to help animals than dealing with farmed animal stuff?
That has been the biggest objection that I've had is people being like, we are totally concerned about suffering in nature but it's complicated. It's hard. There might be knock-on negative effects and we definitely know that trying to get rid of factory farming is going to positive.
Kieran: So I think the biggest objection that I come across is that just now is not really the time for this. Now is more of a time for farmed animals. We should focus on farmed animals. Once we have the farmed animals situation under control, then we can move onto wild animals and I think I'm fairly sympathetic to that. What I would say is that I do lean more in a social change direction than the pragmatic intervention direction, and I think a large part of that is because I'm just not sure there really is any pragmatic interventions right now. So if we did have further research on this and we did identify some of those, I would certainly be open to updating on that, but until we do identify those, I think we should be leaning in impact social change direction.
Abraham: Yeah. I don't know if I agree about there not being viable interventions right now but I definitely agree that social change is the way to go with many animal advocates. I think part of the reason is one of the best ways to sort of ensure that we might do something about wild animal suffering in the future is just, instilling broader values of compassion for animals in people and I think the group of people who does that really well is often the farmed animal advocacy movement. So if wild animals are part of the conversation as well, that seems really beneficial to the movement in the long run.
I also think that, yeah, definitely a lot of animal advocates are skeptical of some of the proposed interventions and maybe it's not the best idea to talk about those, but they're people who are just super compassionate and have a lot of empathy for animals often, and pointing to the suffering that is in nature, often they understand and see that that's a huge issue and aren't going to forget about that, so I think it's definitely worthwhile to do that kind of outreach.
Persis: One follow-up question that came out of Kieran's response, so if we don't think that there are pragmatic interventions or viable interventions at the moment and instead we focus predominately on social change, does that hinder our ability to do research to then later on discover pragmatic interventions or do you think that they're not really mutually exclusive and you can both encourage social change whilst also doing the research on the side?
Kieran: Yeah. I don't see them as mutually exclusive. I would say that it seems like a totally viable approach to do both. One thing I would say I think it would be helpful to have interventions that we could point out as possible examples because otherwise, people will kind of see this issue as too intractable, but if we do have these interventions they can serve a role as a psychological hook almost. So I think, yeah, it would be really helpful to have these, like, go-to interventions and I would still probably focus on the social change aspect.
Ozy: I think that, I mean… I don't know that right now there are interventions that are viable interventions in the sense of, you should donate to this intervention instead of buy malaria nets for a people in the developing world, but I suspect that there are, with our current level of knowledge, interventions that we can be fairly certain are net positive: people, keep your cats inside and clean your bird feeders.
I think that being able to have these sorts of concrete interventions is really important for being able to do social change because I feel like if you just try to concentrate on getting people to care about wild animals then, you're like, okay people, care about wild animals. And then they're like okay, so what do we do now that we care about wild animals, and we're like oh, tell more people that you care about wild animals.
Ozy: And then, it just, I feel like that's really unsatisfying for a lot of people and they're like why should I care about wild animals if I'm not going to get to do anything with my caring. So I think that being able to point to well, these are some things that we're working on, that said, I'm not sure that anything that we have right now is going to beat farmed animals or global poverty charities in terms of cost effectiveness. I'm optimistic that some of them will in the future.
Abraham: I definitely agree that pointing to specific interventions, or specific calls to action, is really important but I also think the social change is a fundamental part of getting the pragmatic research done just because, I think a big barrier to people doing the research is the fact that it's not normalized to believe that we should do something about the suffering of wild animals and, you know, social change is the way that you normalize that, so if people Google wild animal suffering, there should be academics talking about it. There should be random people who like, have no background in this issue being like, yeah, wild animals are important and there's a lot of suffering. It should seem very normal to believe that we should do something about this. Yeah.
Ozy: I think that we should do more research is in fact a concrete call to action, like, especially if you're targeting academics which, going back to the academics topic but, you know, being like we should care about wild animals and because you care about wild animals, you should do research into the prevalence of chronic stress in nature or whatever, is like, very much a concrete intervention that we can… a concrete thing that we can ask people to do.
Persis: Yeah. So one thing I encounter when I have spoken to animal rights activists or advocates is when we come to talking about what viable interventions might be, I often come up against the intrinsic value of nature argument, and often it's very difficult to have this discussion with someone who maybe firstly, doesn't really recognize that they value nature intrinsically and secondly, because it's extremely difficult to try and shift values. I'd be interested in your experiences when you have encountered that and what are some smart ways that you've been able to address that?
Ozy: One thing I try to point out to people is that, like, regardless of whether or not a non-intervene in nature would be a good thing, we don't have that option. It's not on the table. In fact, we are heating up the entire globe. There's pollution in the air. There's, you know the Scottish Highlands? They're that way because of sheep. They used to be forests. There used to be mammoths in America and then humans drove them extinct.
It might be nice to go back to having forests in the Scottish Highlands and mammoths, but we don't really have that option. Every city we have is an intervention into nature. The question is whether we're going to intervene into nature responsibly and with stewardship for the animals that are there, or whether we're just going to be like yes, we're going to intervene in nature in ways that benefit us and forget the animals that are there.
Kieran: Yeah. I think I agree with all of that. What I would add is so one, it's an empirical question. We could do further research on this. We can survey people and see what messages they are most receptive to. The other point I would add is that yes, so we're already intervening in nature and, you know, in these ways that we're already intervening, are there better ways that we could be intervening? Kind of pointing these out. So perhaps something along the lines of, you know, wild-caught fish, if there's like more humane slaughter practices there.
Ozy: Another thing I would point out is that we can, even if you are like, all I want to do is stop humans from intervening in nature, you can prioritize which environmentalist things you do based on, in part, on their effects on wild animals. For example, something like anthropogenic noise could have a very negative effect on fish and it is possible that from a perspective that's concerned about wild animals suffering, you're like, I'm going to care more about anthropogenic noise and maybe less about things that don't also cause harm to wild animals.
Abraham: I think also fortunately, the environmentalist movement has just instilled some deep associations with specific language and again, we can use that language to talk about improving the lives of wild animals. So, I mean I think it is really important to move away from the idea of intervening in nature because that is, I think, at its core where people have this issue and talk about stewarding nature or participating in natural systems just because, again, people are much more receptive to talking about this if we frame it with language that they're comfortable with and that doesn't seem sort of immediately bad.
Ozy: One final thing that I've noticed is that a lot of people that have problems with interventions in general don't have problems with concrete interventions. Like, if you're like, okay you have a problem with interventions in general, do you have a problem with the existence of bird feeders? They're like no. Do you have a problem with wildlife care centers where they help injured wildlife? They're like no. And you're like… so I suspect to a certain degree this problem will go away if we have a concrete interventions and then they will be like yes, I oppose intervention but like, that thing you're doing with wildlife contraception is great.
Abraham: And I also think, on that note, there are historical successes in, sort of, participating in natural systems to improve the lives of wild animals. So, giving wild horses contraceptives to reduce their population and decrease competition for resources in the Western US, or, like, eradicating the screw worm which was a fly that not only… most screw worms lived bad lives themselves, but they laid eggs in the skins of mammals and caused these awful injuries and we got rid of them in North America, and I think there's probably not that many people that would have been opposed to that project. Or in 2016, in Monroe County, Florida, like 57 percent of the population voted or 50 percent of voters agreed to a referendum to get rid of mosquitoes in the area by introducing, like, males who would produce sterile offspring or offspring who wouldn't live to adulthood. I think when we can point to specific examples where we think we will succeed or we have succeeded in the past, people are actually, often, fairly comfortable with it.
Persis: So one thing that comes out from the responses that you've given is the… talking about the role that we have with the environment so the role that we play in nature and Abraham, you pointed out that stewardship in nature is a much more effective communication approach than interventions. Can you give us a little bit more detail in terms of how you describe a steward of nature and what are some fundamental differences between this idea of intervening and stewarding when in practice, they involve very similar activities?
Abraham: Yeah. Absolutely. So for reference, this was a study that we've done twice now on the same language and literally the exact same paragraph with the verbs changed made people much more receptive to this. And so, that just suggests that, I think people have really positive associations with the word stewardship. It's the phrase that the conservation movement has used for a long time for describing conserving nature. But when we used it to describe projects that would probably come across as, like, pretty offensive to many people like literally removing predators or something like that from an ecosystem, people had, still showed we got not nearly the kind of decrease in support that we got when we used the word intervene.
So I think, yeah, we can describe humans as compassionate stewards of natural systems who are there to improve the well-being of animals and whose role in nature is being some kind of arbiter. And I think, if we use that positive language, that makes us seem compassionate. It makes us seem empathetic to the animals whom we're helping or sparing. Then it's not so kind of offensive as making us seem like sort of this cruel dictator who's stepping in.
Ozy: It also makes me think that it's a connection to a lot of religious beliefs about animals that I think the stewardship idea is very big in the Abrahamic religions. For like, humans being chosen by God to be stewards of nature which might make it more powerful for a lot of people.
Persis: Great. One last question in this category and this is, maybe we'll start with Ozy for this one because Ozy's been working on this, a question that has come up for us a lot is how different views within animal rights and animal advocacy can support wild animal suffering or how you might respond to wild animal suffering based on these views? And the one that I think stands out the most is a rights-based view, and so Ozy recently wrote a post on crucial considerations for wild animal suffering which briefly touched on this, and we'll be working on some posts following this. I'd be interested in getting all of your thoughts on how a rights-based view, how you might frame wild animal suffering for supporters of a rights-based view and we'll start with Ozy and then go down.
Ozy: One thing I would point out for people in a rights-based view is that there are many animals which are called synanthropic animals that are ones that have co-evolved with humans but not as domestic animals. There are species like pigeons, rats and mice, even some bugs, and often, people in a rights-based view are like, we have this obligation to domestic animals because of how our actions have led to violations of their rights. We don't have this obligation to wild animals. And I think that like, at the very least a rights-based view implies that we have a certain duty of beneficence to the synanthropic species.
Although I admit that it's probably not going to be a very popular position that we don't have any moral obligations to deer but we do have more obligations to rats.
Kieran: Yeah. So I feel like I haven't thought about this question a lot. When I think about wild animal suffering, this to me, feels like not the most tractable lever to be pulling on. I think that potentially they could be framing it around fairness and equality that a rights-based view would find appealing. I think that you could frame things in terms of, you know, under current conditions, sudden rights are not being met, even though animals plausibly could have some, like, a right to non-interference, because their rights are not being met under current conditions. This is overwhelming that. I think that would be my initial reaction to that.
Abraham: Yeah. I mean I don't think there's any conflicts between advocating for more research into the suffering of wild animals and a rights-based view, so I think that's like completely possible and straightforward. I also think there's great examples of, I mean, often projects to reduce wild animal suffering are framed as being, sort of, anti-natalist like ways to reduce the suffering especially of young animals who die painful deaths at a very young age. And, of course, many people in this room participate in the farmed-animal advocacy movement, which is all an anti-natalist project as well and it's not framed that way. We don't talk about eating vegan diets as like working to make cows not exist, and I think we can think about the framing that the farmed-animal advocacy movement has used, which is there are animals who are living terrible lives and there's something we can do so they don't live terrible lives.
I think the things that would kind of violate a rights framework would be, you know, if we're talking about going and actively injuring or like, you know, euthanizing animals in the wild and instead we can talk about going in and providing birth control to animals who would have offspring who would compete with each other for resources. I think you pretty much get the same result without violating anyone's rights in those instances and people are very comfortable with that. I think it's also a much more pleasant thing as animal advocates who care about animals to do.
Ozy: I think ultimately what it comes down to is that if you are doing something wrong when there is a lion who is like, bothering a two-year-old or is about to attack a two-year-old and you're like eh, I'm gonna ignore that. Then you are also kind of doing something wrong if you see a lion about to attack a zebra and you're like, I'm not gonna do anything about that. Otherwise, it's speciesist. It's treating humans and non-human animals differently simply on the basis of our species membership.
Persis: Great. So we've got about 20 minutes to go. I want to move on to our next topic which is intervention, so there's a lot of disagreement, I think, amongst wild animal welfare advocates for which sort of interventions we should be considering and how we should best be communicating interventions. Do we want to communicate mostly large-scale interventions or should we focus on what individuals can do? How much should we be discussing the relative intractability of some ideas? How much should we be promoting only those that are very viable or only those that are most likely to be adopted? What I want to start with is some useful strategies against the case that when we have intervened in nature in the past, we've only made things worse and that we don't really have a very good picture of what the flow-through effects of our actions might be.
Abraham: Yeah. So often when people say something like this, I actually just ask them well, like, if they can name a time when we've intervened in nature to improve the welfare of wild animals and often, yeah, we build subdivisions. We like build factories that dump chemicals into rivers, and that does have unintended environmental consequences but we weren't doing those things to make the lives of wild animals better. We were doing those things for other reasons.
It's obvious that we can't really expect them to produce the results we might want, like helping wild animals. And I think there's lots of historical examples of us having done things for wild animals that turned out good for the wild animals in the way that we wanted it to. Again, like the eradication of the screw worm or providing contraception to horses, or rabies vaccines for raccoons or other wildlife, and I think pointing to these projects can definitely just help people realize that this is actually fairly tractable to do. Again, I also don't think impact assessment is really where the lack of knowledge is. We have this incredibly robust field of environmental impact assessment work that's been done just by for-profit companies who want to start, like build mines and things like that, just due to environmental regulation. There's great rubrics that researchers have made for doing this work, and I think a lot of that can be translated to looking into the welfare of wild animals, but that just hasn't happened yet. I don't think it's actually as hard to do as some people make it out. Maybe thinking about the consequences over decades and decades is complicated, but in the short term I think it's very possible.
Kieran: Yes, I think that I would express some limited agreement here and I think I would say things along the lines of, “I agree, we should be cautious and we do need further research, but with further research we can reduce uncertainty about these questions.” I think that we can also point at ways where we do already intervene in nature and do these interventions more effectively in order to improve the welfare of wild animals. I think just to pick up on what Abraham was saying, so things like vaccinations of raccoons, yeah I think these would be the main things that I would mention.
Ozy: What I would say is that this applies to every interaction we have with nature. As a matter of fact, nobody goes, “Oh I don't know whether having a larger wildlife refuge or a smaller wildlife refuge is going to make it easier to conserve species. Maybe if we bulldoze the entire rainforest, it'll make it easier to control rainforest species.” In fact, there are things we know about nature, such as the fact that bulldozing the entire rainforest will not make it easier to preserve rainforest species. I think that it is true that intervening in nature is complicated and that there are a lot of… that we need to be careful, and that there are a lot of unexpected flow-through effects, but in fact there are ways that we can make predictions and say, “Okay, we think that this thing is going to have that effect.” Otherwise we couldn't do environmental conservation at all.
Persis: To what extent do you think a consideration like whether or not nature is unpredictable impacts the way we talk about strategies? Is it something that we might want to be working on now so that we have an answer to this question in the future or is it something that we might just learn whilst working on our interventions, whilst working on developing interventions?
Abraham: Yeah, I think it's fairly unlikely that we'll be able to kind of know everything until we've started developing interventions, but again there's been a ton of work done on populations and the way that they're impacted by human activities already. I think it's probably the case that there could be a lot done to just translate that work to the language of welfare, and understand how our past activities have impacted animals in order to form how our future ones might.
Kieran: I think something that I'd find really helpful here is if we had go-to examples. I think that Abraham already mentioned screw worms, so if we had this list of go-to examples of ways in which we've intervened in the environment and it turned out positively for wild animals that would be really, really helpful. I think that again it's worth being cautious in our approach here and not overstepping, and saying we do need further research. Yes, these are complicated ecosystems. Population dynamics aren't easily predicted. Yeah, I think this is how I would respond.
Ozy: Yeah, I'm pretty much in agreement with you guys.
Persis: Great. The next question that I had is how beneficial do you think it is, and we'll break this down into the short term and the long term, to align people by referring to small scale things we can do. Like helping injured animals on the side of the road, providing them with veterinary care, providing small scale supplemental feeding when we have small numbers of animals that might be starving throughout a winter, or vaccination programs. In the short term, how useful do you think this might be? And then in the longer term, do you expect there to be some barriers to moving people on to considering large scale interventions that might not look the same way?
Ozy: I think it's really, one thing that's really important about recommending small scale interventions is to make sure to recommend things that actually have positive effects and not that have negative or neutral effects. One of the things I see, I think when people do intervention based messaging is, “Oh supplemental feeding.” Well, I've actually just written a very long paper on this and I think that supplemental feeding actually is probably negative for animals in most cases. I think that if we're going to be talking about small scale interventions, we should make sure that they are ones that actually help animals and not ones that are going to make situations worse.
Kieran: Yeah, I totally agree with that. The other thing I would say on it is that I think these small scale interventions are helpful as psychological hooks, and people don't just reject the idea as something that is intractable and there's nothing that we can do about it. I think that, plausibly, some of these interventions could be quite cost effective, so I think that on that front they could be just very promising.
I would say, my understanding of the situation is that the end goal here is going to be a large scale intervention in nature where we are dramatically changing ecosystems, or dramatically changing kind of how animals are interacting with each other, and that does seem like a significant step up.
I feel like we do need a lot more research, that obviously this is quite far down the line, We're talking decades or perhaps close to a century where we're at this point, but hopefully at that point we'll have a lot more research. The values of the public will be significantly different from what they are now and we can just have a public discussion about it and… yeah, I think that that's what I would say for that.
Ozy: I think right now a lot of the more large scale interventions, things like Brian Tomasik's ideas about habitat destruction or David Pearce's ideas about genetically engineering lions to eat plants, are things that people tend to find really upsetting. I do think that people should be authentic and generally say, if you genuinely believe that we should concentrate our energy on trying to genetically engineer lions to eat plants, I think you should say that, but I also think that one thing to take into account when we're talking about these sorts of things is that there are a lot of people who might get on board with wildlife contraception or with cutting back on anthropogenic noise or something smaller scale like that are just going to totally bounce off of some of the whole larger scale ones.
Abraham: Yeah. I mean I think again, well first of all framing is everything, you know. Paving over a woods with concrete is the exact same thing as advocating for veganism in terms of the way it helps animals, but I'm sure you all have radically different, you all have radically different responses to those two kinds of things. And that's for a very good reason, which is that we need to frame things positively. We have to frame it as directly helping the animals, even though those animals might never exist. I think it's all about the way we talk about these things ultimately. I do think it's fairly helpful to kind of create tropes of just helping wild animals.
I think in the long run, if we need broad public support to do large scale interventions, people also have to be comfortable with the idea that they sort of have daily obligations to help the wild animals they see in need, even though it's hard to know exactly how they're helping those wild animals in certain cases. I think there's plenty of examples of people who do regularly sort of help wild animals on a small scale and there's probably useful research to be done sort of comparing their attitudes towards larger scale interventions against people who might ignore injured wild animals or something. And maybe this is also, to some extent an empirical question.
Persis: One distinction that I can see between also small scale and large scale interventions is that, for example, supplemental feeding for one starving deer might be particularly beneficial and improve the well being of that particular deer's life. But then when you translate it onto a larger scale, it becomes less likely to be a positive intervention. So how would you try… what are some strategies you could use to communicate that one intervention might be a useful trope, but when you try and expand it, it becomes something that we don't want to advocate for?
Ozy: I think personally, I tend to think we should advocate less for people to do individual actions and more for people to be engaged politically on this issue. I mean when we have an intervention. Partially because I think the sorts of things that the government can do will be much more cost effective, and partially because I think it is generally a hard sell for people to do individual actions, particularly individual actions that cause a lot of sacrifice. As an example, try talking people into becoming vegan. It's hard.
But I think if people are like, "Oh I should write a letter to my congressperson about expanding the use of humane insecticides," or something. This is something where they get to feel good about themselves and it has a concrete benefit for the world, and it's not hard. It's not a major sacrifice. I think that what I would recommend is not for people to do these smaller scale interventions, but instead to have, I guess maybe a medium scale intervention. Something that's in between feeding one deer and complete reorganization of the entire ecosystem, but is to get people to advocate for at least more sort of medium scale interventions is what I would argue for.
Persis: Great. Another discussion that often comes up amongst wild animals suffering, people who would like to reduce wild animal suffering, is the benefit of discussing this idea of a happiness to suffering ratio, or net disvalue or value in nature. I'd be really interested in your thoughts on how useful it is to firstly, frame the problem in this way and then how useful it is to try and… How you would best address these conversations. Let's start with Kieran, then.
Kieran: I think for now I would stay away from, kind of, net suffering in nature and the idea that some wild animals are wildly negative. I think I would, probably wouldn't frame it in terms of either net happiness or net suffering. I would frame things in terms of just improving welfare, improving quality of life.
Abraham: I mean, I think I wouldn't use the phrase like, net suffering, but I probably would frame it to some extent that way just insofar as I think it's really important to describe individual animals and what individual animals' experiences are like. And then also describe the massive scope of how many terrible experiences like that there are. That is getting at sort of the net suffering in a sense and pointing to how massive this issue is, but maybe not use so jargony language.
Ozy: I don't really talk about net suffering or net happiness in nature because I personally don't feel like I know whether there's net suffering or net happiness in nature. I feel like this question depends on a lot of difficult philosophical issues. It depends on a lot of individual details about what a individual animal's life is like.
I think that a lot of the arguments for net suffering in nature either hinge on the experience of dying being extremely bad, which is I think something that many people are going to question. I think that other arguments depend on assumptions about what it must be like to experience the risk of predation, which often are a little bit anthropomorphic. So I end up not using the net suffering versus net happiness in nature framing just because I don't know which side of that I would fall on, and I am not sure… I think we would have to collect a lot of information before I would be comfortable having an opinion on that. That is a really big question.
Persis: Any further thoughts? Well, we have a few minutes I think. Two minutes? I just have one very general question, which I think is important for anyone who wants to be an advocate regardless of whether you're advocating for wild animal suffering or another issue, which is to do with communication approaches that are just particularly useful in terms of preventing, well in terms of bringing people on board, engaging them and avoiding alienating people. I'd be interested in your thoughts about smart communication strategies when you disagree with someone. Perhaps behavioral strategies that have been really useful. Generally the sorts of approaches that you've found have worked best when you engage in disagreements.
Abraham: Yeah. Well, first of all, I have an article about this so feel free to reach out to me or ask me and I'll send you the link. I think in general, not referring to particular stewardship projects. If you do refer to them, call them things like that instead of interventions in nature and then also when people get antagonistic, just say, "Well, I think we need to do a lot more research and learn a lot more about what the lives of wild animals are like." And I think very few people disagree with that claim and it's a really good middle ground that most people will agree with you on.
Kieran: Yeah, I would say try to generally try and understand the other person's position as well as you can before starting to criticize that position. Be charitable, so don't infer bad motivations. Don't jump to a conclusion that they're insulting you or they're insulting a school of thought before you really have to. Try and have a prolonged discussion. Try and have private discussions to avoid the posturing that can go on. Certainly in person things are going to be, people I think will just be more agreeable than online. And I also think that there could be room for adversarial collaborations on these topics.
Ozy: One thing that I think is really important is honesty. I think that there is a real tendency when you're promoting a charity, when you're promoting a cause to be like, "Oh people can't understand this really complicated thing that I believe. I should try to simplify it. I should try to like, instead of talking about this weird, complicated thing I believe, I should try and present something that's simpler. And I don't really think it's true, but maybe it will persuade them." I think you should be honest. I think you should say the downsides, the flaws of your position if you have them. You should say the problems with your prose interventions. You should say the thing you actually believe, even if it is weird and might be off putting. I think that not trying to do PR, public relations, too hard is a really important thing in the effective altruist movement.
The reason that the effective altruist movement exists at all is that there are a bunch of charities who, instead of trying to tell the truth about what their charities are doing, are trying to optimize for getting the most money and the most support. That is why effective altruism exists and can exist, and people aren't just all donating to the best charity to begin with. And so, I think that, as part of that, we as effective altruists need to make a particular effort to communicate the downsides of our positions, communicate things that make our position weaker than it would otherwise be, and say things that are true even if they might make people less likely to believe us.
Persis: Great. So, we have to wrap up now. Our time is up. I hope you found this interesting and informative. I have just huge thanks for Ozy, Abraham, and Kieran. So please give them a round of applause. They did an amazing job.