Thoughts on Vegan Outreach and The Humane League
by Brian Tomasik
First written: 2010; last edited: summer 2012
Note: I have updated thoughts on donating to veg outreach, as described in "My Donations: Past and Present." The following essay does not reflect all of these changes to my thinking.
Summary. I think Vegan Outreach and The Humane League are among the best public charities in the US for people who want to prevent large amounts of suffering. The immediate cruelty prevented is emotionally compelling: For example, each dollar that The Humane League spends on efficient Facebook veg ads conservatively prevents at least 100 days of suffering on a factory farm plus 20 fish deaths, and the actual value may be an order of magnitude higher. However, the more important impact of vegetarian outreach is to raise general awareness of the seriousness of suffering, specifically that of animals. Eventually, in the far future, I hope this will translate into concern over the trillions of creatures that suffer silently, out of sight and out of mind, in the wild.
For compelling on-the-ground accounts of people affected by Vegan Outreach's work, take a look at the Feedback page. And for examples of people affected by Facebook veg ads, see the bottom of this piece.
Animals can feel pain, and the amount of non-human animal suffering in the world dwarfs that of humans. However, because most humans care more about human suffering than an equal amount of animal suffering, the bulk of our charitable resources go to help other humans. Given the disproportionate attention paid to human pain, we should expect a priori that we could achieve higher unexploited returns from charitable activities directed toward animals. Indeed, this appears to be the case in practice.
Good health-care interventions in the developing world prevent a year's worth of human suffering (DALY) for a few hundred dollars, and as low as ~$20 in the best cases. This is excellent, and it shows just how valuable money is. Before buying, say, a meal at a fancy restaurant, we should think twice about the suffering we could be preventing with the same amount of money. That said, helping animals is even cheaper: If we use a conservative estimate that a dollar donated toward online veg ads prevents at least 123 days of suffering on factory farms, this is $3 per DALY averted. (Plus, this calculation ignores the 20 fish deaths prevented per dollar donated.)
The lives of the 24 billion farm animals on land at any given moment are tragic. However, even this number pales by comparison to the amount of pain that occurs in the wild. It's comforting to say that all suffering in nature is out of our control, but this is decidedly untrue: Even minor decisions about which ecosystems to preserve, which to destroy, and which to modify have massive repercussions for billions of small animals whose existence we will either cause or prevent. Furthermore, if humans develop advanced technological capability, they might expand wild suffering orders of magnitude above its current level, such as by engaging in terraforming, directed panspermia, or sentient simulations. I therefore see it as crucial to spread concern for animal suffering, so that societies of the future will give more ethical weight to animals in their calculations and will think twice before expanding ecosystems full of creatures with short lives and painful deaths.
It's possible that the most efficient way to promote the meme that wild-animal suffering matters is to speak about it directly. On the other hand, much of the public may not be ready for a message this
crazy, so it may be best to talk about it among academics, animal activists, and other philosophically minded groups at the start. There are no organizations in the US currently engaged in this work, but who knows -- maybe in 15 years there will be. On the other hand, I think promoting vegetarianism and concern for animal suffering on factory farms is a message that most of the public is ready for, and there are several US public charities doing it with impressive economies of scale. My hope is that the seeds of empathy that are planted by veg outreach will ultimately expand to encompass animals in the wild, even those animals whose suffering is in no way
our fault. Once people are vegetarian, it's natural for them to want to prevent suffering in the wild as well, because they already have a precedent case (factory farming) in which some animal lives are so bad that they're best prevented.
On balance, I think donating to Vegan Outreach or The Humane League is near the most cost-effective use of money for someone who wants to prevent suffering, even purely from the perspective of futuristic scenarios involving wild animals and sentient simulations. That said, there are a few points that trouble me.
vegetarianismdoesn't matter so much; it's the
animal sufferingmessage that's important. (Note: This is also the reason why I much prefer vegetarian outreach over promotion of in-vitro meat. While artificial meat may prevent lots of factory-farmed brutality, it arguably will do less to change social attitudes toward animal suffering per se.)
vegetarianismin a close mental category with
only eating fish and/or chicken and/or eggs.However, those are precisely the worst food choices from the perspective of immediate factory-farmed suffering. According to the figures in part of the reason it eschews excessive focus on global-warming arguments), although for PR reasons, it can't adopt an
eat more beefcampaign.
keeping nature as it's supposed to be.(Except when it comes to things like smallpox or hurricanes or Novocain, in which case they say we shouldn't let nature take its course!)
 Also, in practice, it seems that many people do reduce chicken and fish along with bigger animals upon seeing veg ads. In one survey of individuals who ordered a Veg Starter Pack, Nick Cooney found that 63% decreased or eliminated beef (1% increased), and 38% decreased or eliminated fish, with a 10% increase. In other words, there was still a net reduction in fish consumption, even if it wasn't as big as for red meat. A different survey found even more promising results: 53% of respondents reduced or eliminated fish, compared with 67% for red meat and 69% for chicken.
 On this last point, I hope that US animal charities will come to focus less on specific issues (e.g., veganism, lab testing, stray pets, etc.) and more on a general anti-speciesist message. In particular, being a welfarist, I prefer advocacy of utilitarian-style animal welfare, but promotion of general
animal rights can have value as well. The key is to emphasize that animal suffering is bad in any context, not just in specific cases in which humans happen to be responsible for the harm. This seems likely to move people in the direction of caring about wild animals most rapidly, and it also helps ensure that our descendants will have the right responses to novel decisions about animal well-being that we can't anticipate today. Several Spanish and South-American animal organizations have a more focused anti-speciesist message than most US charities, and some of their members have come to agree that wild-animal suffering matters. I recommend that US animal charities follow in this direction.