Hide table of contents

In this piece, I discuss promising ideas which are more often found in/associated with abolitionist circles. Intuitively, these ideas do not suffer from aforementioned limitations and weaknesses, however I don’t prove this, or that they work. I argue that these ideas have either (a) not been considered or (b) been dismissed too quickly: they work and there are cost-effective ways of scaling them.

  1. Scaling Animal Agriculture Transitions
  2. Documentaries (and Other Media)
  3. Rights-based Legal Actions
  4. Street Outreach
  5. Increasing Plant-based Food & Education


This post is part of series: Abolitionist in the Streets, Pragmatist in the Sheets: New Ideas for Effective Animal Advocacy.  The series' main point is to point out that (broadly speaking) animal advocacy within Effective Altruism is uniform in its welfarist thinking and approach, and that it has assumed with insufficient reason that all abolitionist thinking and approaches are ineffective

I (a pragmatic, abolitionist-leaning animal advocate and vegan) wrote this series voluntarily, in rare spare time, over the course of 14 months, with help from three other vegans, all of whom have been familiar with EA for a few years. It is intended to be a big-picture piece, surfacing and investigating common beliefs within EA animal advocacy. Necessarily, I deal with generalisations of views, which will not cover all variations, organisations, or advocates.

No Plans to (Re)Visit

With respect to the ideas below, Faunalytics does/will cover some of them, including publishing (in the 14 months taken for this piece to be written), one original study on the effectiveness of Cowspiracy. Charity Entrepreneurship has nothing on any of the below, and up until recently, Animal Charity Evaluators only evaluated (poorly) protest and leafleting, considering some (old-school) tactics like rescue or grassroots campaigning. Though their new list covers a variety of approaches, their second philosophical commitment (on pursuing actions on increasing welfare)[1], suggests that abolitionist approaches will not be a priority for them. Similarly, EA Animal Welfare Fund specifically lists that it supports only “positive yet incremental changes” with regards to farmed animals.

For a movement which has much uncertainty (around what works and what’s necessary) as animal advocacy, such a lack of plurality is concerning, and not just on theoretical grounds: charities like NHRP or ProVeg which were previously considered are now ignored.

Scaling Animal Agriculture Transitions

One promising line of abolishing animal agriculture is by helping animal farmers transition, either directly and/or through policy campaigning. 

For directly helping animal farmers transition, depending on the context, this can be a win-win and financially self-sustaining. The win for animal advocates is not just the usual reasons, but also in terms of public perception: it directly challenges the stereotype that animal advocates are ‘anti-farmer’.

The win for animal farmers is worth spelling out: animal farmers, especially the ones running low-welfare, high-volume CAFOs, are often essentially franchisees. They are often financially stuck in a cycle where large loans are required to purchase approved standardised equipment, feed, and breeds from large scale meat suppliers, and with exacting standards and little bargaining power over the selling price. According to a recent Faunalytics summary of a Proveg International Report:

“Farmers are already feeling the effects of climate change through reduced [feed] crop yields and increasing weather volatility. Health concerns, along with increasing awareness of agriculture’s impact on the environment, are changing consumer preferences in the Global North. Demand for animal-based foods is falling. Adding to farmers’ challenges are increasing industry consolidation and intensification. Furthermore, many governments are changing their agriculture subsidies to reward pro-environmental practices.”.

There are already charities working on this (Refarm’dDairy Farm TransitionRancher Advocacy ProgramStock Free Farming to name a few), and the lack of discussion within the EA community around this issue (no cost-effectiveness analyses, lack of research on ways to scale-up such operations) is perplexing.[2] As mentioned in this Faunalytics report on the evolution of the dairy industry

“Despite the widespread lack of profits in smaller farms, many dairy farms are slow to close down. Farms can continue operating as long as they are able to pay for immediate expenses, even if they cannot pay off their initial investments or afford regular maintenance of their equipment. Some farms supplement their income by allowing visitors (agrotourism) or selling calves and heifers. Many dairy farms also benefit from federal subsidies [...].”

The report goes on to mention that farmers are ageing, and more small dairy farms are likely to close as a result. Allowing this to happen could cement resentment towards animal and environmental advocates, amongst a population (farmers) which carries a lot of social currency. However, decisive action could turn this threat into a prime opportunity to create unlikely allies and establish a new narrative around abolishing animal farming, as explored in the Aotearoa New Zealand documentary Milked.

Aside from informing policy directions, pursuing a bottom-up approach has another important advantage: establishing goodwill directly with the animal farmer community. Reasonable policy decisions can be met with resistance if perceived as a top-down push. For example, The Netherlands is Europe’s largest beef exporter, but factory farming has resulted in serious ammonia pollution throughout the small country. The government has unveiled plans to pay off cattle farmers to voluntarily reduce the size of their herds across 13 years, but even this has faced huge backlash from farmers who have staged huge street protests in recent years over the prospects of such buyouts. 

Transitions could be financially self-sustaining, if the new business the farmer transitions to is more profitable than the previous one. One could imagine a model where the immediate cost of transition could be borne out by charities, but then repaid over time, allowing the initial seed to go much further.

Encouraging animal agriculture transition can also be done at a policy level. Movements like the Plant-based TreatyReboot Food and the Just Livestock Transition (and maybe FAIRR?) have already laid the foundations (not in the least by coming up with catchy names for the idea). Doing this in the right way could help not just farmers, but also (1) reduce/mitigate wild animal suffering (WAS) and (2) unlock the ability of landowners to take action. WAS could be reduced or mitigated by ensuring that animal agriculture transition policies do not rewild in a way which reintroduces predators.

As for landowners: I once attended a meeting of Trinity Responsible Investment Society, and raised the issue of animal agriculture (agricultural land makes up a significant portion of the college’s endowment). A fellow explained that some land leases expired as late as 2060, and even as landowners, they had no legal recourse to change what the leaseholders (farmers) did. With the right sort of policy adjustments and advocacy, animal advocates could allow (or even require) landowners to do their part, which would unlock the power of institutional investors to take action.

One could also argue that transitioning any particular farmer/country would simply displace production, potentially to lower animal-welfare standard farms or countries. This is a valid concern, even though it seems to me that (1) it would only apply in the initial stages and (2) there is historical precedent (the British Navy and Government's roles in convincing other countries to also abolish slave trading) on how to mitigate this. All things considered, I believe the internal logic for scaling animal agriculture I’ve laid out above is just as strong as that for strategies the effective animal advocacy community is currently pursuing. Worries about displacement don’t seem to rule out the approach prima facie, if anything, it justifies the urgency and need for careful measurement and further research.

Documentaries (and Other Media)

A Sep 2021 study on the effectiveness of documentaries at reducing animal consumption found a documentary “did not decrease meat and animal product [consumption 1 week after] compared to the control video when potential social desirability bias was minimized.”. Whilst the study is commendable for its design to minimise social desirability bias (saying what you think the researchers want to hear), the chosen documentary itself was not representative of the sort of documentaries that gain mass viewership and discussion. It is 21 mins long (approximately 7 for health, 4 for environmental, 10 for animals). It hits all the major points (except fish catching and farming) and has an acceptable production quality. However, it’s not of the same length or quality as popular Netflix documentaries, DominionEarthlings and Milked, which use music, visuals, interviews, narration and an engaging story to guide the audience through a journey.

As if by magic however, during the 14 months it took to write this piece, a study was published to answer how effective Cowspiracy is. Like with the previous study, viewers of the test-condition documentary did increase the percentage of participants who intended to reduce animal consumption. However, unlike the previous study, the sample size was small, and no mention is made of controlling for social desirability bias.

This brings us on to the thorny issue around measuring: ultimately, advocates care about reducing animal consumption (to zero), but this is difficult to measure accurately and over long enough timescales. However, if we also care about the spread in the ideas of veganism, since a spread in ideas can affect substantial change without affecting an individual’s behaviour (Social Change Dynamics), then results such as the above are sufficient evidence to demonstrate that something of value is happening via this medium.

Perhaps documentaries are more suited to be a hits-based approach than measuring-based; this seems to be the conclusion of an Open Phil Animal Welfare Research Note from Feb 2020. It also concludes that the production value of a documentary correlates with its success, especially with regards to making it onto major streaming platforms, though not necessarily successful enough to offset the increased (and varying) costs.

There is another, advantageous and often overlooked, aspect of documentary impact which could be cheaper to support: promotion. At its end, the newsletter says:

“Documentarians tend to understandably focus on financing the film’s production, leaving few resources to promote it. Funders and activists focused on promotion have two advantages: (a) they can see whether the film turned out well before getting involve, and (b) they can focus exclusively on amplifying the film’s impact.”

It uses Eating Animals as an example; I would have reached for Gary Yourofsky’s famous speech, and its promotion campaign within Israel. Astonishingly, this was overlooked by Bollard when asked about the explosion of interest in veganism in Israel. The popularity of Gary’s speech in Israel at the time is well-documented and the campaign itself was simply two people who translated and shared the video on social media. Promotion campaigns are within the remit of EA (the promotion of What We Owe The Future) and are still useful for animal advocacy (the promotion of This is Vegan Propaganda by Ed Winters).

This oversight highlights the importance of remembering that the cultural downstream effects of documentaries are numerous and not (yet, or easily) captured by the above discussions: people involved in the documentaries get interviewed, news articles get written about the issue, excerpts can be clipped and remixed into easily shareable content online, new activists are created, and existing activists have easily accessible content to point interested people towards. A legacy (2014) report based on a large-scale (N=3000) survey said “Exposure to documentaries and books are two of the biggest catalysts inspiring people to reduce or eliminate animal product consumption.”. A 2020 Faunalytics study of the origins of animal activists in the U.S.A. and Canada (N=161) found that 37% became involved because of exposure to media (13% documentaries, 10% books).

It’s also worth remembering that documentaries are not the only form of media. Things like public advertising (billboards, social media content/ads[3]), short films,[4] books, paintings, poetry, street-art, etc. also have a cultural impact. Of course their impact is hard to measure, but it’s probably doable - I’m confident that somewhere in McDonald’s, someone’s estimated how many times someone needs to see an ad for a McPlant before buying one. Perhaps as with documentaries, it’s not the production of such content, but amplifying its reach which would be an effective action to take. One potentially useful idea would be to improve the inconsistent enforcement of advertising standards in a given country, which seems to scrutinise plant-based and vegan advertising far more than carnist ones.

Rights-based Legal Actions

The case for welfare law improvements are understood and widely accepted within effective animal advocacy[5][6][7]; they are (somewhat) tractable because of their incremental nature and affect a large number of animals, thus considered cost-effective. However the case for animal rights laws don’t seem to get too much attention (anymore). To be clear, this is not to say the community should pursue the latter over the former, but a case for balance.

Apart from working to grant specific species habeas corpus in specific (usually high-income) countries[8][9], there seems to be a path towards changing the legal status of non-human animals to persons, thus granting them rights, at the international level too. Dr. Anne Peters has argued that the international legal order is flexible enough for it to become a promising target for animal advocates, while the globalisation of animal exploitation through international supply chains increases the potential importance of international animal rights law (to prevent displacement). She argues that in the space of international law, a rights-based approach (requiring positive justification for any interference in the lives of animals) would be more effective than a welfarist one. And, as Dr. Garett Broad points out, this does not necessarily mean an all-or-nothing approach, arguing for an incremental approach to rights.[10] Some smart work here could also make things easier for moral circle expanders in the future.

As an aside: I came across a very interesting paper which concluded that “there is no in-principle reason to support the censure of racist hate speech but not the censure of speciesist hate speech.”. If so, could this be a useful line of advocacy to pursue, perhaps with regards to advertising standards as mentioned before?

Street Outreach

Street outreach is an old-school tactic that has seen some smart and effective upgrades in recent years, enough to warrant investigation. Having taken part in 50+ hours of such actions myself, I have seen first-hand the sort of effect it can have. Of course, a sceptic may fairly accuse me of bias, but perhaps they will be persuaded to continue reading based on what arch-pragmatist Tobias Leenaert has to say on the matter:

“My impressions of the one Cube I attended in Berlin were largely positive. I was rather impressed with how I heard the outreachers talk to the onlookers. Most were not pushy. They were asking questions and listening [...] outreachers only approach people who have been watching for a while, and will not bother with those who just walk by and seem not to be open for any conversation [...] I can definitely see some very positive aspects to this kind of activism [...] it seems to be very successful in attracting new activists”

Leenaert then goes on to list concerns and suggestions, which I address (implicitly) later.

To keep things concrete, in this section, I will only discuss street outreach in the form of AV Cubes and similar derivatives[11], and use the term ‘cube’ generically rather than specifically AV Cubes. There are other forms of street outreach, such as chalking or ‘change-my-mind’ conversations, but I’ll focus on cubes because I think they strike a good balance on many points such as: ease of getting started for activists, number of people outreached, engagement from public and low-ongoing costs

(Something that I wish to mention in passing is that street outreach is a great opportunity to explore principles of moral circle expansion strategies: my experience with this translated surprisingly well for me and my local One for the World university society.)

What are cubes and their variations?

The essence of a cube is a combination of two things: street-theatre and targeted, structured outreaching. These things distinguish it from various (and from my experience, comparatively pointless) forms of street outreach such as leafleting or gathering signatures. It is important to note that conversations tend to be short and polite: whilst extended, confrontational arguments make videos go viral, they are (thankfully) not representative of the typical case.

Street-theatre serves to draw a crowd; one that is self-selected to be interested and available for conversation. In the case of cubes, it’s usually people standing in a formation, dressed consistently, wearing some sort of masks, holding screens (TVs work best) displaying legal and standard practice, RSPCA/blue-tick certified footage of farms and slaughterhouses. If there are enough people, or not enough screens, some will hold a sign instead. Sometimes emotionally charged recorded or live music is also used. Sometimes there will also be an information table in the background.

Targeted, structured outreach serves to deliver the message in a timely manner without emotionally-draining the outreacher. Only members of the public who stop and watch for a little while are approached. Conversations need only be a few minutes long and, with a bit of experience, follow a rhythm that whilst feeling natural to the public, is actually quite standardised. Whilst many assume talking to strangers to be difficult, because of the (lack of) context, it is a lot easier than talking to colleagues, friends, or family. Outreachers advocate for elimination using an abolitionist, animal-centric message, acknowledging and redirecting away from self-interested arguments. 

(Very briefly, as mentioned before, this is justifiable because advocating for elimination is not conclusively worse or better than advocating for reduction (based on the current evidence), the stronger request requires justification and keeps conversations going, and using an animal-centric message is a comparative advantage for animal advocates and may lead to stronger motivations.)

Whilst common objections to such an ask and their responses are finite, oft-repeated and well-known (or easily learnable), the aim is to structure conversations such that they do not turn into a debate in the first place, and having well-defined exit points when dealing with disingenuous people. Such a structure has been refined over multiple years[12] to streamline onboarding new activists; my favourite version (well worth a watch) is easily explained within 17 minutes, and more detailed versions take one or at most two hours to deliver. The structure is based on the premise that most avoiding hypocrisy is the key to changing behaviour; it is optimised to politely[13] and efficiently establish that based on their own values, a person’s consuming animals is hypocritical and that veganism is the only acceptable resolution. At that point, an outreacher may walk through WOOP-ing going vegan. At the end, the hypocrisy and resolution is summarised back to the person.

The nice thing about cubes is that there are many axes on which to experiment and test, assessing effectiveness either in attitude change, or in understanding the argument for veganism, or in reduction in animal consumption.

  • Footage. Should it be of slaughterhouses, or happy animals at a sanctuary? Or both, either side by side or interleaved?
  • Masks. Are they helpful for drawing attention, or off-putting?
  • Music. Is emotionally charged music helpful for activating an empathic response?
  • Messaging. In this context, is elimination and animal-centric messaging the most effective strategy?
  • Food. Do samples of food help reduce cognitive dissonance or distract from the intention?
  • Premise. Is avoiding hypocrisy really the key to changing behaviour?

One very fun way in which cubes can be altered is in the set-up. My favourite examples subvert expectations of the public in different ways. One way is to have the TVs the same, but a sign underneath saying ‘Animals deserve to be abused. Prove me wrong.’Another way is to have a similar setup, but with a sign saying ‘Will you sign the petition?’, and when a member of the public goes to the outreacher, they find out that it’s a petition to legalise animal cruelty. Lastly, a time-efficient way I came across uses just three questions to get to the point. Whilst some might be sceptical about these approaches, it’s worth keeping an open mind and seeing (or better yet, trying) them for oneself.

Reasons cubes work (cost-effectively)

Interventions similar to cubes have been tested and found to work before, and this is true of the basic premise that moral discussion and education can change opinions and behaviours (as tested in a university philosophy classroom). I conjecture that the effect would be stronger with cubes, because of emotional cues, structured persuasion (rather than discussion) and cognitive-dissonance (which other research has shown to be a powerful tool). Whilst one might be worried about backfire effects, that phenomenon has had trouble being replicated, and needs more robust evidence to deny or confirm it.

Given we have good reasons to believe that cubes work, the next question is about cost-effectiveness. Whilst prior work is pessimistic on that, the AV-model addresses some of the shortcomings of the strategy they tested. First off, the most expensive factor in their estimates is staff costs, which the AV-model of supporting and connecting local volunteer-led chapters would make substantially cheaper. Thus the intervention would be encouraging (with logistics, community, and financial support) vegans to get involved with this, rather than paying professionals to do so full-time. Secondly, they focused only on pigs, which could lead to a smaller impact: in roughly the same amount of time, an outreacher can argue for all animals (I acknowledge that there is a tradeoff here, and am not criticising them for measuring as they did). Thirdly, it’s not clear the extent to which structured persuasion and cognitive-dissonance were used.

Increasing Plant-based Food & Education

Campaigns for more plant-based food are not as straightforward as one may hope: there’s a catch-22 situation, where caterers think that people don’t want such options, and people don’t take such options if there’s not enough of them. Fortunately, this has been tested and the results are promising:

“doubling vegetarian meal availability from 25% to 50% did result in a 41% increase in vegetarian meal sales [...] total sales were not affected [...] there was no “rebound effect.” [...] simply offering more vegetarian meals can increase vegetarian meal consumption and decrease meat consumption.”

Another way around this is to lean into campaigns such as Veganuary (and similar things such as challenge22). There is a consensus around the intuition that such campaigns are a good thing,[14][15] but little rigorous analysis on how much so, or research into improving it. Such examples speak to the feasibility of both volunteer/student-run campaigns such as Plant-based Universities[16] (successful in Stirling), Animal Rebellion’s UK City Council Campaign (190 lives saved per £), and perhaps professional organisations such as ProVeg. Even without menu change, interventions can produce low-cost changes at scale.[17]

A related avenue is education: in medical schools and national dietary guidelines (which filter down to primary and secondary schools). Remember that junk food corporations and animal agriculture lobbyists are already fighting (and winning) on this front. Increasing the awareness and acceptance of fully plant-based diets as nutritionally adequate, if not optimal, seems like a very effective thing to pursue - for the sake of human and non-human animals! Equally useful could be getting the case for animal rights laws in front of law students the world over.

  1. ^

     ACE Goals and Strategy“We are committed to promoting welfare. All other morally relevant factors being equal, we will choose actions that will result in the highest overall welfare.”

  2. ^

     One particularly inexplicable instance of this is an EA organisation refusing to engage (via support, consideration, or constructive criticism) on a farmer transition project from a qualified researcher in the field. I was requested to not name names, out of fear that doing so would harm future relations.

  3. ^

     There is some research on this (Mercy for AnimalsACE) but it’s old and standards of rigour have since increased.

  4. ^
  5. ^
  6. ^
  7. ^
  8. ^
  9. ^
  10. ^

     I’m not entirely convinced by this idea (I think it might worsen speciesism if done incorrectly), but it seemed relevant and interesting.

  11. ^

     For various reasons, many activists have kept the format but distanced themselves from AV.

  12. ^

     In the words of a friend of mine referring to AV’s How to Hold Non-vegans Accountable, “whilst version one was basically an excuse to be an asshole to non-vegans, version two was a significant update with some pretty good points.”.

  13. ^

     Clever set-ups, framing the questions about the actions of a hypothetical third-person, and a friendly demeanour can achieve this without triggering a defensive response. It is a learnable skill.

  14. ^
  15. ^
  16. ^

     Though it does do so using climate-change rather than a moral argument, which seems to be more palatable in an institutional setting.

  17. ^

     For example, information on climate change, activating cognitive-dissonance around animal, or using a variety of nudges.

Sorted by Click to highlight new comments since:

Hi Dhruv, thanks for sharing! Thoughtful posts which go against the grain are always great to see here.

Structural note: Perhaps a sequence would have been a better format for this series of posts?

Good points you made:

  • LMICs could benefit from increased animal advocacy, especially given the likely lower scrutiny on their factory farming practices.
  • Focusing animal advocacy on the ethical argument rather than other considerations is important for ensuring the message's fidelity over time. For example, if veganism for health reasons or for "leaving animals alone (including wild animals)" became the dominant message, animal advocacy's longtermist implications could be completely different.
  • Ensuring that animal farmers are taken under consideration is underemphasized in animal advocacy. One additional benefit is that abolitionism is very left-coded, and farmers are quite right-coded (at least in the US). Considering farmers helps to reduce the movement's codedness.

Some questions/comments:

  • Brian Tomasik thinks it's "pretty unclear whether promoting vegetarianism reduces or increases total animal suffering, both when considering short-run effects on wild animals on Earth and when considering long-run effects on society's values". It seems plausible that if wild animals live net negative lives in expectation, then well-meaning memes of environmental conservation accompanying animal advocacy could cause more harm than good. If we seek a robust net positive effect, wouldn't it be easier to argue for evidence-based welfarist interventions like the Humane Slaughter Association than for abolitionist advocacy?
  • Do you think there's a substantial long-term difference between immediate abolitionist advocacy and an incrementalist, welfarist approach which seeks to turn public opinion over the next few decades? Which do you think would more permanently and robustly expand society's moral circle? (By analogy, from the perspective of the temperance movement, it's arguable that the Prohibition would have endured for much longer if the Overton window had been shifted more in favor of temperance before Prohibition was enacted.)
  • You argue that cultured meat could turn meat into a luxury good rather than abolishing it altogether, which could perpetuate a culture where it's still considered "okay" to eat meat. It seems to me that if the price of cultured meat falls below parity, then people would be more likely to think: "I could pay X to create a chicken, torture it for its short life, and cruelly slaughter it, or I could pay 0.9 * X to not do that and get the same benefit...maybe torturing chickens is bad." (Similarly, a slave-abolitionist could argue that promoting industrialization over slavery could be bad for slave welfare, because we could just industrialize without ever making the moral leap to "slavery is bad".) Your consideration has merit, but do you think it's more decisive than the points in favor of cultured meat?

Hi Ariel! Thank you for the kind words. May I suggest moving this discussion to the overview piece given its cross-cutting content?

And yes perhaps a sequence might have been better, but I'd already started, had some glitches trying to create a sequence, and got the impression (from other examples) that sequences are "heavier"/longer.

Edit: I'll just answer here while I have the time. I especially appreciate you highlighting the points you thought were good, thank you.

  1. Clearly I disagree with Tomasik with respect to the point about "long-run effects on society's values". What you said seems possible, rather than plausible, but that just suggests to me we should be careful about the message/argument (whenever I ask people why they care about "the environment", it's pretty easy to get most to see it's due to instrumental value to sentient beings). And yes, if ones values "robust net-positive effects" above abolition, then yes the implication you draw out seems correct, but I don't see a good reason to do that valuation in the first place.

  2. I thought I answered these questions in the first post (as yes and abolitionism)? And I don't understand what the relevant similarities with prohibition are to comment meaningfully.

  3. Not more decisive, but worth keeping in mind given the difficulty with cultured meat.

Thanks for the great post! Just wanted to add Mercy for Animal's Transfarmation if you have not seen this yet. https://thetransfarmationproject.org/

Thank you for sharing so many thoughts. I encourage you to push further, and I'm intersted in talking or collaborating as well. I have been involved in different types of direct advocacy in the past and have been most active in recent years as a donor - primarily to groups I believe may move animal product alternatives forward and which are being overlooked by other donors.

One thing I've been curious about is whether doing explicit moral education is useful and in what mode. Animal Ethics is the group that comes to mind that seems to be doing the most of this, and most closely aligned with abolitionism. I mean, they seem to be delivering moral arguments at various levels - from academic to the street - and in different modes. My assumption is that helping to spread simply put, common sense arguments for animal rights will an important and necessary part of moving to abolition.

Thanks for the kind words, and I look forward to hearing about any opportunities for collaboration.

Curated and popular this week
Relevant opportunities