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Bernadette_Young comments on Quantifying the Impact of Economic Growth on Meat Consumption - Effective Altruism Forum

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Comment author: Bernadette_Young 22 December 2015 11:51:32AM *  0 points [-]

Hi kbog, I appreciate you've done a lot of work here, but I've downvoted because I have a strong ethical and practical objection to this issue being discussed as 'the poor meat eater problem'. These objections have been hashed out every time this topic comes up. It makes me very sad that the meme persists, and I think it's terrible for it to be associated with EA discussion.

I think the so-called 'poor meat eater problem' is based on 2 fallacies, at least one of which appears somewhat prejudiced: 1.: the decision to focus on only one long term consequence of advancing development 2: the failure to apply the same reasoning to developed countries

Clearly the vast bulk of meat is eaten by rich people. If you want to discuss the implications for animal suffering of economic development, then why limit the discussion to poor countries? Why limit the consideration to 'what might be the effects of increasing aid to developing countries'. If one was to take this line of reasoning as am important one (ie we should limiting animal suffering by limiting human economic development, since the latter is associated with more animal product consumption), then I would question why you don't also recommend the following:

  • Support political candidates most likely to trash the local economy (reducing local economic development)
  • Support political parties that oppose universal health care (thus keeping the local poor too poor for meat)
  • Support for parties that oppose gun control (murdered people don't eat meat!)
  • Support for anti-vaccination policies (nor do children who die of whooping cough)
  • Support wasteful or ineffective use of research money (to make sure we don't make any discoveries that would advance human development)

I hope you think those would all be terrible things to do, and I think the suggestion that we should limit our help of the global poor because they may as a result consume more animal products is likewise awful.

(edited for clarity, typos and niceness)

Comment author: kbog  (EA Profile) 22 December 2015 12:02:03PM *  14 points [-]

Hi kbog, I appreciate you've done a lot of work here, but I've downvoted because I have a strong ethical and practical objection to this issue being discussed as 'the poor meat eater problem'. These objections have been hashed out every time this topic comes up. It makes me very sad that the meme persists, and I think it's terrible for it to be associated with EA discussion.

Ok, I didn't put any thought into the title, if that's a potential issue then I have no problem changing it.

Fallacy: the decision to focus on only one long term consequence of advancing development

I don't assume that this is the only thing to worry about, and I didn't want to leave this impression which is why I tried to be as clear as I could with my post about how many other consequences I left out of consideration, and didn't draw any conclusions nor even speculate about aid being net good or bad.

The failure to apply the same reasoning to developed countries

Yes I didn't write about that but I just consider it to be a separate discussion. I've thought about looking at developed countries in the same way, but right now I felt like this was a more relevant topic to EAs.

Clearly the vast bulk of meat is eaten by rich people. If you want to discuss the implications for animal suffering of economic development, then why limit the discussion to poor countries? Why limit the consideration to 'what might be the effects of increasing aid to developing countries'. If one was to take this line of reasoning as am important one (ie we should limiting animal suffering by limiting human economic development, since the latter is associated with more animal product consumption), then I would question why you don't also recommend the following:

I guess you take this as a reductio ad absurdum against the idea of reducing animal suffering in the developing world, but I don't see that as the case. It seems perfectly morally plausible to me, in theory, that we could be justified in limiting the growth of a society founded on animal exploitation, so while I haven't done any analysis of it, I can't say the idea is so ridiculous as to justify shutting down discussion. Again, I'm not saying that I support these things, I'm saying that the possibility that in a different universe I might be committed to supporting them doesn't seriously disturb me. Now I would expect economic harm to the developed world to have negligible effects on meat consumption - meat consumption levels off above a relatively high income, so preventing future economic development of wealthy countries doesn't accomplish anything in that regard. I also see social stability as having positive x-risks and economic growth as reducing wild animal suffering so that's why I'm against the things you mentioned.

Besides, what do you make of fossil fuel advocates who think it's morally wrong to restrict fossil fuels used by the developing world? Maybe they have a point, but they're not obviously right.

Comment author: Bernadette_Young 22 December 2015 12:36:37PM *  1 point [-]

I think the phrasing of the 'problem' is bad, but the title really isn't the only issue.

"Considerations entirely outside the model: impact of development on wild animal suffering, climate change, technological progress, global economic development, etc."

I'm afraid this really doesn't read to me as being clear about how narrowly a focus this argument takes. I have literally seen people say "Now I've heard about the poor meat eater problem I've stopped donating to SCI", so simply saying you don't draw any conclusion is not, I think, sufficient justification for advancing such a one sided argument. Those things you wave away in the sentence above will in all likelihood completely dwarf the numbers below.

I do think that considering meat eating in the developed world to be "a separate problem" that is not a "relevant topic" is discriminatory. It's an 'us and them' divide, which is purely conceptual.

I don't think my objections are a reductio ad absurdum, I just think they are harmful actions that are not justified by the reduction in animal suffering they might indirectly lead to. I do find it odd that you see social stability as having positive x-risk only in developed countries though.

Comment author: kbog  (EA Profile) 22 December 2015 12:49:26PM *  5 points [-]

I'm afraid this really doesn't read to me as being clear about how narrowly a focus this argument takes. I have literally seen people say "Now I've heard about the poor meat eater problem I've stopped donating to SCI", so simply saying you don't draw any conclusion is not, I think, sufficient justification for advancing such a one sided argument. Those things you wave away in the sentence above will in all likelihood completely dwarf the numbers below.

If people make bad decisions then that's unfortunate, but all other things being equal more information leads to better decisions and EA is the last movement which needs to have its strings pulled. I would expect that giving more information about different aspects of issues is always good and I would be happy to see people weigh in on those issues. I don't have the time to write about everything. Personally I had no idea that anyone in the movement had even mentioned this at all within the past few years and I had never seen someone object to it, so I didn't expect there to be this problem.

I do find it odd that you see social stability as having positive x-risk only in developed countries though.

I didn't say anything yet about the impact on x risk of developing countries. Again, that's outside the bounds of what I'm looking at.

If you'd like to have a broad discussion of cause prioritization then I'd be happy to, but it would have to start with me laying down a full set of ideas, as opposed to having my priorities be extrapolated from a very narrow analysis.

Comment author: Bernadette_Young 22 December 2015 12:56:02PM 3 points [-]

"If people make bad decisions then that's unfortunate, but all other things being equal more information leads to better decisions and EA is the last movement which needs to have its strings pulled. "

To be clear: I am not advocating censorship. I'm advocating putting information in a context that makes its scope and importance apparent. It would be naive to ignore that some ideas have mimetic pull, particularly if you're being counter-intuitive by advancing an argument that aid is bad.

"I don't have the time to write about everything."

No of course not, but of all the problems in all the gin joints in all the world, you picked this one. That is a form of cause prioritisation, and I think it's reasonable to draw some inference from that action.

Comment author: kbog  (EA Profile) 22 December 2015 01:09:17PM *  2 points [-]

To be clear: I am not advocating censorship. I'm advocating putting information in a context that makes its scope and importance apparent. It would be naive to ignore that some ideas have mimetic pull, particularly if you're being counter-intuitive by advancing an argument that aid is bad.

I put my argument in a good enough context for someone who was interested in reading and understanding my point of view to fully understand my scope and assumptions. I trust people on this forum to be rational enough about the issue, and I believe I clearly did make the scope and importance of this issue apparent by explicitly stating the many limits of my analysis and drawing zero conclusions or speculation about whether "aid is bad", so I suppose we're at an impasse about that.

It's possible that the issue of meat consumption in the developing world has overly strong "memetic pull", but I don't see why I should be more worried about that than the "memetic pull" of pro-aid arguments (which, for the longest time, EAs have been deliberately trying to make more emotionally appealing) as well as the memetic pull of x-risk arguments (which have earned accusations of being cultish and ridiculous because of their memetic appearance) and so on and so forth.

No of course not, but of all the problems in all the gin joints in all the world, you picked this one.

Yes, because in many months/over a year of watching this forum, the EA subreddit, many EA blogs/organizations/websites, and multiple EA facebook groups, I have never once seen someone bring it up. So as far as I could tell, it's been comparatively under-recognized. Whatever flame wars broke out about this in 2012 and 2013, I haven't seen them, and I suspect that many others on this forum haven't either.

Comment author: MichaelDickens  (EA Profile) 22 December 2015 03:55:03PM 2 points [-]

I searched the EA Facebook group, it looks like it has come up a total of three times:

https://www.facebook.com/groups/effective.altruists/permalink/539157796140582/

https://www.facebook.com/groups/effective.altruists/permalink/501491619907200/

https://www.facebook.com/groups/effective.altruists/permalink/543620345694327/

The first two threads have a decent amount of discussion.

There's also a Facebook group, although it's inactive:

https://www.facebook.com/groups/370060246454362/

Comment author: Bernadette_Young 22 December 2015 01:50:50PM 0 points [-]

If you use the search function in the main facebook group it's quite straightforward to find plenty of discussion.

Comment author: Larks 22 December 2015 09:42:48PM *  4 points [-]

Hey Bernadette,

I think your general argument:

If making people richer is bad because it increases meat consumption, then this has many implications other than just for AMF - it is an argument for many otherwise abhorrent actions and policies.

is a good one.

But I think you could present it better. At the moment some of your examples are very partisan - in a US context you have two very anti-right-wing examples, and no anti-left-wing examples. Thinking about Politics is the Mindkiller, this is likely to make it hard for right-wing readers to appreciate your point. Their instinctive reaction to your post will be hostility and defensiveness:

"No, doesn't she realise that 'universal health care' costs far more than it is worth? Experiments like the RAND and Oregon healthcare experiments show that giving people more healthcare than they would buy themselves doesn't make them any healthier, it just increases taxes even further!"

"No, gun rights are an important human right - violating them to try to reduce murders makes as much sense as banning gay sex as a policy to fight HIV/AIDs."

Now, these responses would miss the point of your argument. Your argument doesn't depend on which policies would make people in the first world poorer. Ideally, your right-wing reader would instead substitute

  • Support political parties that promote pointless regulation (reducing economic growth)
  • Support minimum wages (unemployed people can't afford meat)
  • Support mandatory contraception and abortion (people who are never born can't eat meat)

for your suggested examples and then come to agree with your substantive point. But I think in practice this is unlikely - it takes substantial effort to overcome the instinctive negative response

But you can avoid this reaction, and make it easier for people from diverse political backgrounds to agree with you, by either including political examples from a variety of perspectives - say, swap out one of the anti-right-wing examples for an anti-left-wing one - or better yet by simply not using any directly political examples at all. Your first and last examples do this well - sufficiently concrete that people can understand what they mean, but sufficiently abstract that readers can think of examples consistent with their other views.

edit: formatting

Comment author: Robert_Wiblin 22 December 2015 12:50:23PM *  4 points [-]

I also support renaming this the 'rich meat eater problem', or something like that. It's absurd to have to focus be on the very poor in this regard when the problem is on what happens when people are no longer poor.

It is also bizarre to focus on only this one long-term effect when there are so many others that seem as significant, or more so. To start with, a richer world means more researchers working on better meat-replacements, and a bigger market for any business that succeeds in developing such a novel product.

Comment author: kbog  (EA Profile) 22 December 2015 01:02:47PM *  5 points [-]

Impacts on developed society's economic progress are a long way removed from economic development in the developing world, and impacts on developed society's research progress from economic growth constitute another leap entirely. I can come up with countervailing scenarios too - "the expansion of high intensity, high efficiency African agriculture will lead to net exports that will outprice meat replacements." And so on and so forth.

It's totally disingenuous to shut down a discussion by claiming that the issue in question is less significant than something else. If you wanted to apply that strategy then you could find plenty of other discussion topics to be equally 'bizarre.' I'm not sure what to make of that accusation except to hope that you simply misinterpreted my original post where I said that I wasn't evaluating other possibly greater issues.

Comment author: Robert_Wiblin 22 December 2015 04:37:16PM *  1 point [-]

I'm not trying to shut down the discussion, I just think the concern about 'more meat eating' should be put in the context of a more comprehensive list of positive and negative flow-through effects of economic growth, in which it wouldn't particularly stand out.

Comment author: MichaelDickens  (EA Profile) 22 December 2015 03:33:29PM 4 points [-]

It is bizarre to focus on only this one long-term effect when there are so many others that seem as significant or more so. To start with, a richer world means more researchers working on better meat-replacements, and a bigger market for any business that succeeds in developing such a product.

The causal connection between making people wealthier and them eating more meat is pretty strong. It's much less clear that donating to GiveDirectly will lead to better meat-replacements (or pretty much any other technological benefit).

Comment author: tomstocker 30 December 2015 06:58:07AM 0 points [-]

You say its strong but doesn't development also reduce fertility? I hate to bring another argument that is positioned in a hypocritical farm owner mentality to wonderful and often downtrodden people,, but within your frame, how do you know that this doesn't just bring forward a bit of raised meat consumption while reducing the eventual human numbers after 20 years on a permanent basis, reducing total animal suffering?

Comment author: MichaelDickens  (EA Profile) 30 December 2015 03:47:08PM 1 point [-]

Development reduces fertility, but developed countries still eat way more animals than developing countries do. According to Wikipedia, rich countries eat about ten times as much meat per person as poor countries, which overwhelms differences in population size. Also consider that rich countries use factory farming more than poor countries do, so the animals they eat suffer a lot more.

Comment author: [deleted] 22 December 2015 03:15:58PM *  2 points [-]

I also support renaming this the 'rich meat eater problem', or something like that. It's absurd to focus on the very poor in this regard.

Most EAs who care about human and non-human animals are donating to humans in "poor" countries and/or donating to promote animal welfare. Therefore, meat eater behavior in "poor" countries is an important "problem" for these EAs.

Comment author: Robert_Wiblin 22 December 2015 04:44:08PM 8 points [-]

The problems are a) it looks bad to have a bunch of rich people blaming the 'poor' for a problem created by the wealth they already have and others don't; b) the problem isn't about 'poor meat eaters', it's about 'no-longer-poor meat eaters' so in that sense it's a misnomer .

Comment author: [deleted] 22 December 2015 06:54:41PM *  -1 points [-]

a) it looks bad to have a bunch of rich people blaming the 'poor' for a problem created by the wealth they already have and others don't;

We shouldn’t really care if it looks bad. We should only care about what course of action leads to the most good. If it looks SO bad that the efficiency gains from rationality are outweighed by people repelled from the EA movement, then we’ve got a problem. Personally, I don’t think this is likely.

b) the problem isn't about 'poor meat eaters', it's about 'no-longer-poor meat eaters' so in that sense it's a misnomer

Disagree. The problem will still be about “poor meat eaters” because the unfortunate likelihood is that they will remain poor for some time.

For example, AMF operates in Malawi and DRC.

Malawi’s nominal GDP per capita is only 6% of the median country's measured by the IMF. DRC’s is only 8%.

To increase each country’s nominal GDP per capita to the median country for just one year, Malawi would need a cash donation of $88B and DRC would need $428B. It’s safe to say these countries will remain extremely poor for the near future.

Sources: GiveWell, Wikipedia - IMF, Wikipedia - Malawi, Wikipedia - DRC

Comment author: Robert_Wiblin 22 December 2015 08:25:42PM 3 points [-]

"We shouldn’t really care if it looks bad."

I give up.

Comment author: Gleb_T  (EA Profile) 24 December 2015 01:13:54AM 1 point [-]

No need to give up. I think it's beneficial to calculate the costs of "looking bad" and have it as a factor that we make in our analysis of the situation. Only by weighing "Bad PR" as a cost can we make a thorough analysis of the situation.