Vegetarianism, Climate Change, and Wild Animals

"The question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?" - Jeremy Bentham

Vegetarianism, Climate Change, and Wild Animals

Postby Brian Tomasik » Sat Jul 04, 2009 9:44 pm

I've posted a new piece on my site regarding "Vegetarianism and Wild Animals," and I'm curious to hear if others have comments on it.

I won't copy over the entire article, but here's the summary:
It has been argued that promoting vegetarianism increases the number of animal life-years that exist because the reduced ecological footprint of the vegetarian diet allows many more animals to exist in the wild. This may not be true if climate change would have increased the number of wild animals that exist over the long term, so I remain uncertain about the net impact of vegetarianism on wild-animal life-years. However, if it is the case that vegetarianism results in a net increase of wild-animal life-years, and if wild animals suffer more than they're happy, then the widespread assumption that adopting a vegetarian diet prevents animal suffering might be wrong. However, even if this were so, the activities of organizations like Vegan Outreach could still be on balance beneficial, by encouraging people to care more about animal welfare in general.

In particular, what do you think about the net impact of climate change for wild-animal populations in the long run? And are there other effects of vegetarianism besides reduced cropland use and greenhouse-gas emissions that have a big impact on wild-animal life-years?
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Re: Vegetarianism, Climate Change, and Wild Animals

Postby DanielLC » Sun Jul 05, 2009 11:59 pm

Is eating meat actually the best way to increase your carbon footprint? I wouldn't have guessed it increased it that much.
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Re: Vegetarianism, Climate Change, and Wild Animals

Postby Brian Tomasik » Mon Jul 06, 2009 1:03 am

Well, the paper I relied on for my numbers was summarized by New Scientist with the title, "It's better to green your diet than your car."

But whether or not refraining from meat is the most efficient way to reduce an individual's greenhouse-gas emissions, the question about the net effect of a vegetarian diet remains relevant for those who want to promote vegetarianism among the general public (rather than just deciding whether they personally should focus their time and energy on going vegetarian or not).
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Re: Vegetarianism, Climate Change, and Wild Animals

Postby EmbraceUnity » Thu Jul 09, 2009 1:19 am

Well all of this obviously depends upon how highly one rates the suffering of different species.

If, for instance, consciousness is the result of some sort of strange loop, then some beings might be exponentially more important because they recursively experience suffering many more times.

If adult humans can reasonably be valued as thousands of times more important than other mammals, and mammals in general can be valued as thousands of times more important than other families of species, then clearly abstaining from at least red meat makes sense on many levels (preventing direct suffering to mammals, maintaining a habitable ecosystem, etc).

If, for instance, non-mammals or non-vertebrates, or some other biological distinction is completely incapable of attaining any sort of recursive consciousness, then it would hardly be worth considering the direct suffering aspect. Your own thought cycles spent in trying to empathize are wasted, and that wasted mental energy is more valuable than all the suffering it could ever receive.

If being uncaring towards, say, insects leads to an empathy deficit in other aspects of life, then that is the only reason to oppose it.

Of course this is a quantitative and reductionist way of looking at it based on a premise that I'm not even sure is disprovable. At some point it comes down to making some sort of value judgment despite that we have almost no knowledge of the mechanism by which consciousness operates.

Though, given the nature of the brain, I think it is reasonable to assume that it is a relatively decentralized system, and that the idea of recursive awareness is compatible with this fact. Thus, the brain may likely exhibit some aspects of scale invariance, feedback loops, fractals, etc. That is likely why we can remove whole portions of the brain as still retain most functionality... because of the multiple levels of self-similarity which communicate with each other.

If this is the case, this is actually a very good reason to consider brain size as an important feature to consider. If - bear with me - consciousness could be reduced to an equation resembling scientific notation, perhaps the qualitative aspect (the structural properties) could be the coefficient and the quantitative aspect (size) could be the exponent. In that case, I'm not quite sure how we can go about assigning numerical values to that highly qualitative coefficient.

Though with even a generous confidence interval I can't imagine a chicken coming anywhere close to a human with even a liberal assumption of its qualitative aspect... especially given the very tiny brain size. Though I would say they deserve enough consideration not to be eaten. Fish are harder to register as directly valuable, and invertebrates harder still.

Values are subjective, and clearly I can only extend value to things similar enough to me that I can empathize with. If the computer I am typing on is experiencing something, there is no way I can know.

So I think, even considering climate change, or rather... especially considering climate change, there is ample reason to support vegetarianism from a utilitarian perspective.
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Re: Vegetarianism, Climate Change, and Wild Animals

Postby Brian Tomasik » Thu Jul 09, 2009 3:25 am

It appears that demand for cropland is rising quickly because of biomass-fuel production. As the linked article notes, "More land will get put into production though. So expect a reduction in wildlife habitats."

As a friend of mine pointed out, this is potentially relevant to the wild-animal impact of vegetarianism: Might it be the case that encouraging people to eat less meat has little impact on the amount of land devoted to crop production, because decreases in feed-grain crops will just be offset by increases in biomass crops?

In any market, a decrease in demand (that is, a leftward shift of the demand curve) depresses prices, which means that the actual quantity demanded doesn't fall by the full amount. The exact magnitude of this offsetting effect depends on the elasticities of supply and demand -- see, e.g., Chapter 8 of this book for a discussion within the context of the market for meat vs. vegetarian foods. To the extent that the news about biofuels suggests that humanity is pushing up against the limits of cropland availability, we would expect that larger and larger price increases would be needed to achieve a given increase in quantity supplied, i.e., that the supply curve is more inelastic than we would have otherwise thought. And a more inelastic supply curve does mean that a given decline in demand for cropland will not lead to as much of a reduction in real quantity demanded. Of course, this is all speculation on my part -- I'm not sure how inelastic the cropland market actually is.

It's worth remembering that, as page 3 of Chapter 8 of the above-linked book notes, a similar situation of relatively inelastic supply may be true with respect to encouraging people to eat less beef. The chapter goes on to suggest that supply in the market for other types of animals, like chicken and eggs, is probably more elastic, implying more real impact when people reduce their consumption of those products.
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Re: Vegetarianism, Climate Change, and Wild Animals

Postby DanielLC » Thu Jul 09, 2009 3:29 am

Embrace, did you mean to respond in Sentience and brain size?
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Re: Vegetarianism, Climate Change, and Wild Animals

Postby Brian Tomasik » Thu Jul 09, 2009 4:21 am

EmbraceUnity, thanks for the comments.

Your recursive-loop suggestion for humans experiencing emotions far more intensely than animals wasn't one I've come across before. Perhaps you could point me toward a reference that discusses the idea further?

The general point about emotional intensity and brain size is important to consider -- you're right that, if amount of pain scales with, say, number of neurons, then the possibility of insect suffering, and the suffering of animals more generally, becomes much less important. I guess my main concern is the one described in the last paragraph of the opening post in the "Sentience and brain size" article to which DanielLC linked: What if we're wrong about the relationship between emotional intensity and amount of neural tissue? As you say, "Of course this is a quantitative and reductionist way of looking at it based on a premise that I'm not even sure is disprovable. At some point it comes down to making some sort of value judgment despite that we have almost no knowledge of the mechanism by which consciousness operates."

As far as the fact that "we can remove whole portions of the brain as still retain most functionality," why doesn't this suggest the opposite conclusion: That brain size is not as important as just having some neurons running the right algorithm?
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Re: Vegetarianism, Climate Change, and Wild Animals

Postby EmbraceUnity » Thu Jul 09, 2009 6:38 am

I wasn't aware of the brain size thread, but I will gladly look it over. It seems to overlap quite a bit.

I'm not sure if anyone else has ever formally analyzed the ethical implications of the strange loop theory of consciousness which people such as Douglas Hofstadter have proposed (see: Godel Escher and Bach and I am a Strange Loop). If the theory is true, utilitarians must take it into careful consideration. However, while it does seem to have a lot of explanatory power, it doesn't have a lot of evidence.

Indeed, you are correct that the fact that brains can undergo lobotomy and retain all the visible trappings of consciousness does not necessitate the validity of this idea. It could just mean there is some basic level of circuitry which is required. On the other hand, the strange loop theory doesn't add any extra premises, and is equally probable as far as I can tell.

Whether there are other explanations besides this is also uncertain.
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Re: Vegetarianism, Climate Change, and Wild Animals

Postby brightmidnight » Wed Aug 19, 2009 3:04 am

I read your essay when it was published, and I don't think that vegetarianism increases overall suffering by increasing wildlife. Wildlife is decreasing at a rapid pace anyway, with many species going extinct. Why continue to promote the suffering of certain types of animals we know suffer (cows, pigs, etc.) over that of others we don't know will suffer if cows and pigs don't?

I do agree with you that perhaps we should discourage egg consumption over meat eating (especially beef) due to the massive suffering egg laying hens experience, especially after witnessing a Compassion Over Killing video documenting this in Maryland.
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Re: Vegetarianism, Climate Change, and Wild Animals

Postby Brian Tomasik » Wed Aug 19, 2009 5:47 am

Thanks for the comments, brightmidnight.

brightmidnight wrote:I read your essay when it was published, and I don't think that vegetarianism increases overall suffering by increasing wildlife. Wildlife is decreasing at a rapid pace anyway, with many species going extinct.

Decisions are made on the margin, i.e., by asking "What's the change in outcome if I do the action?" The fact remains that vegetarianism tends to cause more wild animals to exist than would otherwise.

brightmidnight wrote:Why continue to promote the suffering of certain types of animals we know suffer (cows, pigs, etc.) over that of others we don't know will suffer if cows and pigs don't?

Well, I assign a large enough probability to the possibility that smaller animals can suffer that the expected value of their suffering dominates. But even if that weren't the case, there are plenty of large mammals in the wild that we know are sentient as well. Or did I misunderstand the question?
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