The Role of Individual Consumption Decisions in Animal Welfare and Climate are Analogous

Disclosure/​Disclaimer/​Epistemic Status

In my current day job I am a climate policy analyst, though I am in the process of transitioning and will be a law professor by the time with context is judged. The views expressed in this essay are my own and do not necessarily reflect those of any current, past, or future employer.

I am an expert in climate law and policy and am much more confident about my claims in the domain than I am about my claims regarding animal welfare. That said, my claims about animal welfare are mostly applications of basic economic reasoning, so I am still reasonably confident about them. I am least confident that the asymmetry that I am criticizing actually exists. My impression is certainly that EAs, both individually and acting through EA organizations, put more emphasis on individual consumption, relative to policy/​tech change, in the animal welfare domain than in the climate domain, but this is difficult to verify empirically. I do quote a survey of EAs reporting that 46% of EAs claim to be personally vegetarian or vegan, but personal climate-related consumption is less legible and I was unable to locate comparable data. This is especially problematic since what I criticize is mostly actual EA practice, not the public messaging of organizations like 80,000 hours that do emphasize policy and technology change.

The Role of Individual Consumption Decisions in Animal Welfare and Climate are Analogous

While formal EA statements and guidance in both animal welfare and climate change (in my view, rightly) focus primarily on policy and other systemic changes, it is my observation that the EA community (both individually and in institutional behavior) tends to emphasize individual consumption behavior more in the animal welfare context. For instance, many EAs (46% according to this survey) are personally vegetarian or vegan, and many EA events only serve vegan food. By contrast, EAs tend not to focus as much on decreasing their personal carbon footprints, and EA events don’t typically forego air conditioning on hot days or make other sacrifices comparable to serving vegan meals. This essay argues that this difference in emphasis is largely unjustified.

Let’s get one important point out of the way at the start. This essay is NOT about the relative importance of climate change mitigation and animal welfare. Differences in the importance of these two cause areas could justify differences in the total amount of EA effort in these two domains, but wouldn’t justify a different allocation of effort between individual consumption decisions and structural/​policy change.

What it is about is the basic structure of the two problems. Consider the standard arguments against focussing on individual consumption choices as a solution to climate change.

  1. Any individual’s emissions, even in rich countries, is a drop in the bucket. Reducing your personal carbon footprint to zero will not have an appreciable effect on global temperatures.

  2. Even the reduction in your personal emissions overstates your impact because your reduction in demand for carbon-intensive goods and services makes them cheaper for others, which will lead some to increase their consumption.

  3. You could offset your annual emissions at a much lower cost than you could the monetary and nonmonetary cost of directly eliminating your personal emissions.

  4. A focus on personal consumption emissions is a poor substitute for policy change, clean energy technology investment, and other higher-leverage actions. Sometimes, this argument takes the form that oil companies invented the idea of a personal carbon footprint to distract you from policy change.

Do you notice anything about these arguments? That’s right, they all apply, with essentially the same force, to personal efforts to reduce or eliminate consumption of meat, dairy, and eggs on animal welfare grounds. Let’s go through them one by one.

  1. Any individual’s consumption of meat, dairy, and eggs, even in rich countries, is a drop in the bucket. Reducing your personal consumption of any products will not have an appreciable impact on aggregate animal suffering.

One might object that declining to eat meat at least saves the specific animals from suffering, whereas an incremental reduction in carbon emissions will have no detectable impact on the climate. This apparent distinction rests on two reasoning errors. First, a reduction in meat consumption and a reduction in GHG emissions are analogous outputs in terms of animal welfare/​climate change mitigation effort. All climate change mitigation (as opposed to adaptation or geoengineering) efforts, whether they act via individual consumption or other channels, will cash out in terms of emissions, which will then only have probabilistic impacts in terms of actual outcomes of interests, including reduced harms to people and ecosystems. Thus, any difference in the level of individual consumption effort that is justified for the two cause areas on this basis would also apply to other channels of influence. Second, statistical harms are nonetheless real harms worth caring about. In expectation, reducing your personal emissions does produce real social benefits, even if the beneficiaries are unidentifiable. Also, it’s worth noting that, in most cases, declining to consume meat or other animal products also does not spare an identifiable animal from suffering. This brings us to point 2.

2. Even the reduction in your personal meat consumption overstates your impact because your reduction in demand for meat makes them cheaper for others, which will lead some to increase in their consumption.

Actually, an even stronger argument can be made here. In the typical case of meat consumption, the animal suffering has already occurred by the time the consumer is deciding whether to buy or otherwise claim the product. In some cases, such as a party, a fixed quantity of meat has already been prepared and some may simply be discarded if it is not all consumed. When a vegetarian or vegan declines to consume meat, the idea is that their demand reduction will cause the equilibrium quantity of meat to go down. That is, grocery stores and restaurants and dining halls and party hosts will purchase less meat because their estimate of how much the fend consumers want will fall. This reasoning is fine as far as it goes in a statistical sense, though any one person choosing to eat beans instead of a burger may not change the equilibrium quantity at all. In this sense, reducing meat consumption is analogous to reducing one’s consumption of grid electricity, which is similarly produced (with any associated carbon emissions) before the customer decides to consume it. It is different from the consumption of automobile gasoline, heating oil or gas, use of a natural gas stove, or use of fuel in an onsite generator, which all directly produce emissions as they are consumed. In such cases, declining to consume them does directly reduce emissions. Nonetheless, in both cases, markets will generally equilibrate such that the expected impacts of reduced consumption are broadly analogous. There is no particular reason to think that the shape of the supply and demand curves for meat and emissions-intensive goods and services differ systematically such that the net reduction in global consumption will fall more short of the gross reduction in personal consumption in one domain than the other.

One might respond that vegetarians and vegans can hope to influence others’ behavior via social contagion, so the benefit is greater than the gross quantity of meat they avoid eating. But, of course, climate hawks could make the same arguments for reductions in their personal carbon footprints, and many do. There’s no particular reason to think that this works better for animal welfare than for climate change. If anything, my impression is that many people dislike vegetarians and vegans precisely because they feel implicitly judged by them. While there may be an analogous phenomenon for people with low carbon footprints, I haven’t seen any evidence for it.

3. You could offset your personal consumption of meat and other animal products at a much lower cost than you could the monetary and nonmonetary cost of directly eliminating your personal animal product consumption.

I think this is pretty self-explanatory. There are issues with offsetting in both domains, but the cases are broadly analogous. As Scott Alexander points out, you can donate to a group advocating for cage-free eggs or even to an ad campaign to convince other people to become vegetarian or vegan just as easily as you can give money to a climate policy advocacy organization or buy carbon offsets. Sure, you might be skeptical of Jeff Kaufman and Brian Tomasik’s claim that about $10 to $50 is enough to make one person become vegetarian for one year, but there is plenty of reason to doubt that cheap carbon offsets actually represent emissions reductions or negative emissions that are permanent, additional, non-leaking, and not double-counted.

4. A focus on personal consumption emissions is a poor substitute for policy change, investment in meat/​dairy/​egg alternatives, and other higher-leverage actions.

One might argue that personal abstention from meat-eating is complementary to and reinforces activism, but of course, this exact argument can be and is made for personal climate-related consumption. They hold with roughly equal force in both cases.

I said at the outset that this isn’t an argument about the importance of the two cause areas. To be sure, you could justify making more personal consumption effort in one domain if you thought it was more important. That is, it might be worth taking relatively cost-ineffective measures to tackle a really important problem, but not a less important one. Still, I don’t think this quite lines up with the general EA view and practice regarding the role of consumption choices in these two domains.

After all, the strongest EA argument against putting more resources into climate change mitigated is that it scores low on neglectedness, relative to other EA cause areas like animal welfare. This is probably true with regard to policy, technology, and other large-scale changes. The money spent on climate change mitigation dwarfs that spent on animal welfare. The same goes for the number of people devoting their careers to animal welfare vs. climate change.

It’s harder to assess the relative neglectedness in terms of personal consumption decisions. Globally, there are an estimated 79 million vegans (about 1% of the global population) and about 1.1 billion vegetarians (almost 14% of the global population). It’s more difficult to measure the number of people who make analogous changes in their personal consumption patterns to reduce their carbon footprint, though of course reducing or eliminating consumption of animal products is one the most straightforward ways to reduce the GHG emissions intensity of your consumption.

In any case, it’s not really clear that the neglectedness criterion really applies to personal consumption choices, since there are unlikely to be the same diminishing marginal returns to reduced demand for meat or dirty energy as there are for money or human capital investments in more systematic approaches like policy change. If anything, you might expect increasing marginal returns to reductions in meat/​dirty energy consumption since, as the pool of meat/​dirty energy consumers.

The upshot of this analysis is that the relative non-neglectedness of non-personal consumption-based climate action actually somewhat means that personal consumption interventions should be at less of a disadvantage as compared to policy advocacy, etc., given the lack of diminishing marginal returns.

Reasonable people can disagree about the relative tractability of animal welfare and climate change, but it’s hard to see how tractability considerations could fundamentally alter the basic thrust of this essay.

What should be done about this?

Should EAs reduce their emphasis on personal meat/​dairy/​egg consumption? Should they increase their emphasis on their personal carbon footprint?

I think the answer is probably a bit of both. At the very least, it would probably be helpful for EA messaging to make it clear that you can be an EA in good standing if you eat meat, just as you can be an EA in good standing if you use air conditioning, drive a car, or fly on planes. Similarly, EAs shouldn’t go crazy trying to minimize their carbon footprints, but some marginal sacrifices in terms of comfort and convenience to reduce emissions are warranted. For example, EAs could roughly try to shift their consumption bundle to what it would be if carbon emissions were priced to internalize their full social cost.

Other objections and responses

  1. Changes in personal consumption decisions could, in principle and if universalized, completely solve the animal welfare problem. They could not completely solve climate change.

I don’t think this is quite right. Depending on the scope of what’s classified as “personal consumption decisions” and what we mean by “in principle” either both of these problems could be substantially solved by changes in individual consumption or neither could. Of course, 100% of people going vegan (in the absence of comparably affordable, palatable, and healthful substitutes for meat and other animal products) or refusing to consume any goods or services with associated greenhouse gas emissions (again, in the absence of comparably affordable, convenient, and comfortable zero-emissions alternatives) do not represent realistic pathways for solving animal welfare and climate change. But if everyone in the world did stop buying and consuming meat and other animal products, the factory farming industry would collapse in fairly short order. Many purchases of animal products are made by institutions, including governments, that might not be directly responsive to market forces, however. So it would probably take some significant political action and other forms of advocacy to eliminate meat purchases by non-individuals. If everyone in the world were personally on board with veganism, this advocacy would presumably be pretty easy, but it would still have to happen. Similarly, if people refused to consume any goods or services that were associated with net-positive greenhouse gas emissions, then those industries would rapidly decarbonize or go out of business. To be sure, the governments and other institutions buy concrete, steel, electricity, and other carbon-intensive goods, and some advocacy would be required to get them to stop doing so, but this advocacy would be fairly straightforward in a world where everyone is committed to eliminating their personal carbon footprint.

2. From Robi Rahman: “A person choosing to eat 1kg less chicken results in 0.6 kg less expected chicken produced in the long run, which averts 20 days of chicken suffering. A comparable sacrifice would be to turn off your air conditioning for 3 days, which in expectation reduces future global warming by 10^(-14) °C and reduces suffering by zero.”

Without quibbling with the precise numbers, I think this is fundamentally a point about the importance of the two cause areas. Climate change, by its nature, has diffuse and difficult-to-predict-with-precision impacts. This is true of both individual consumption decisions and of larger-scale policy and technology interventions. In the animal welfare context, it may be difficult to point to the specific chicken whose suffering was avoided (in part because the typical “beneficiary” will be a chicken that is never born, but also because it’s really hard to identify even which farm will decrease its output in response to any particular consumption decision), but it’s still fairly easy to imagine specific, in principle-identifiable suffering that is avoided. As I argue above, however, diffuse statistical expectation of harm is nonetheless real harm. One might also claim that climate change mitigation has a staircase-shaped function, with a zero derivative on the scale of individual contributions. But even if this is the correct model of the shape of the emissions abatement-suffering curve, you never know whether your marginal emissions are going to be ones that tip us over the next step, causing large harms. In expectation, your marginal emissions cause about as much harm as they would if the curve were smooth. In any case, the same goes for meat consumption under most circumstances. Costco doesn’t adjust their orders of hot dogs or rotisserie chickens on 1-unit increments, so odds are that your declining to buy either will have no effect of their meat purchases. On average, of course, this all washes out, but the same is true in the climate context. And even if you disagree with the foregoing analysis, that’s perhaps a reason to decrease overall investment in climate change as a cause area, not specifically to decrease the emphasis on individual consumption.

3. Also from Robi Rahman: “I can reduce my contribution to farmed animal suffering by 90% by giving up chicken, or 99% by switching from an omnivorous diet to a vegetarian diet [with no eggs]. Conversely, there’s no practical way to reduce my contribution to climate change by that fraction (I’d have to give up all electricity and live as a forager in the woods), much less avert my share of climate-related harms.”

It’s true that it would be harder to substantially eliminate your personal gross carbon footprint than it is to substantially eliminate your personal negative impact on animal welfare. Even this statement has caveats though, as human construction of roads, buildings, and other infrastructure often displaces wild animals and plausibly causes significant animal suffering. It would be less straightforward for EAs to eliminate this impact. In any case, this argument doesn’t bear much on the marginal efforts that EA could make to reduce their carbon footprints. Just because it wouldn’t pass a cost-benefit test to try to bring your personal gross emissions down to zero doesn’t mean there aren’t useful things you could be doing to mitigate the harm caused by your consumption choices. My individual donations aren’t going to eliminate malaria deaths, but that doesn’t mean that the marginal contribution that my donations make is not worth it. It’s hard to see why one’s practical inability to substantially eliminate their personal carbon footprint means that they shouldn’t take personal steps to abate their emissions when doing so would produce net social benefits.

4. Vegetarianism/​veganism is a simple rule to follow, that doesn’t require a lot of mental effort to figure out the full inclusive welfare costs and benefits of each consumption decision. No analogous “bright line” action is available for personal consumption in the climate domain.

This seems right up to a point. It is hard to know the carbon footprint of every product you consume and it would be much more difficult, just as a practical matter, to fully eliminate your personal carbon footprint (in terms of gross emissions) than to go vegan. That said, there are some fairly straightforward steps everyone can take to reduce their personal greenhouse gas emissions. Walking or biking for regular commuting instead of driving a car greatly reduces personal emissions in a straightforward way. Getting a programmable thermostat and setting it not to run when you know you will be out is also straightforward and clearly passes a cost-benefit test. In some areas, you can get one for free by participating in a demand management program that downcycles your air conditioning during times of peak demand, when incremental energy is generally both the most expensive and most carbon-intensive. If you own your roof, you can put solar panels on it are largely decarbonize your electricity consumption. Of course, you can also avoid air travel when possible, and reduce your meat and dairy consumption. This latter channel partially aligns with animal welfare, but also diverges inasmuch as beef consumption is much more greenhouse gas-intensive than chicken, but chicken consumption is much worse from an animal welfare perspective. Going vegetarian or vegan resolves the dilemma, but this is a greater personal sacrifice, at least for some people.