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Career Guide for Ending Factory Farming

In particular, there is a talent bottleneck for science and engineering roles.

As someone with experience hiring in the alternative protein sector, I have a few thoughts about this:

  • The current talent bottlenecks in the industry may not be a great guide for a young professional's career, at least in the alternative protein sector. Things in these industries change extremely quickly. Given that it could take 5+ years to get educated in one of these technical fields, the landscape by the time you finish your degree may look pretty different. Product improvement is a major focus now, but in the future I can see a major emphasis on policy (government funding for technical research can be a massive resource for public-good focused industries), management, operations, and marketing / PR (e.g. once the competition with conventional meat gets a bit dirtier).
  • In my experience, the talent bottleneck for food science is greater than for other technical fields. Plant-based, cultivated, and fermented alt-proteins all need food scientists, and the explosion in plant-based meat (which is 10x bigger than cultivated and fermented) has put a lot of strain on that labor market. I also think it may be somewhat faster to get trained in food science than in e.g. bioengineering.

Very thorough writeup :)

Some Scattered Thoughts on Operations


Another possible difference between the startup world and the EA world is that startups have access to much stronger direct feedback loops than non-profits, i.e. trying to sell to customers and seeing what happens. This means that startups don't have to think through everything super carefully before executing.

Some Scattered Thoughts on Operations

I remember being surprised by the differing mindsets about operations when I transitioned to being more involved in the tech startup world after already being involved in EA. In the startup world you often hear things like "Ideas are cheap; execution is everything" which likely leads to operations feeling less low status. This is a major contrast to the EA world where many are highly intellectual, and place a high value on ideas. Given that startups tend to have more skin in the game than non-profits, perhaps EA non-profits could benefit from shifting more towards this mindset.

The Conflicted Omnivore

[Separating from my other comment, since it's a separate idea]

There's a fifth idea that  activists might consider when taking conflicted omnivores seriously, although it's a bit ickier. Activists may be able to take whatever feeling is underlying the answers to these polls, and combine it with peoples' general lack of education around factory farming, and garner broad support for something that seems much less radical than it is. For example, imagine a ballot initiative that aimed to "ban artificial insemination" in the dairy industry. Given polls like these, people may be inclined to support it, despite being unaware that it could cripple the dairy industry.

The Conflicted Omnivore

Thank you for bringing attention to this phenomenon!  I've seen a number of polls like this now, which makes me confident that this isn't a fluke, and actually points to something extremely important for the movement. Another cool study from Psychology Today shows animal rights was the least controversial of six causes considered, including sustainability. 

It's a shame that in my experience, many activist are convinced that broader society doesn't care about animals at all.  I think this is a major sort of disillusionment and burnout in the movement. According to polls like this, there's an important way in which this mindset is misguided.

I've also thought a bit about why we haven't already abolished factory farms given polls like these. Adding on to the points you've already brought up:

  • Cass Sunstein has done some awesome work on how "societal beliefs" can be slow to change in response to changes in the beliefs of the individual in that society (I like this 80K podcast episode on it). This is a reason for optimism that we may see abrupt change in favor of animal rights in the future.
  • I think many people don't actually have "beliefs" about whether animals have rights / feel pain / are conscious, etc . Beliefs are an abstraction over ways they might act in various scenarios (the map is not the territory). People can answer polls like this yet still not have the ascribed belief, because in reality their answer is a different type of behavior (e.g.  an emotional response, signaling of group identity, etc). For me, this makes it less paradoxical how people can answer polls like this, yet still eat meat.
What foundational science would help produce clean meat?
Answer by avacynNov 13, 202012

In the abstract, the highest impact scientific research you can do outside industry should focus on things that are important to long-term success, but are not necessary in the short term. 

Companies already have a strong incentive to find alternatives to the largest cost-drivers so that they can begin to produce regularly at smaller scales without going bankrupt. For example, companies are likely already working on alternatives to using the most expensive growth factors, since at current costs, they can make even small scale production cost-prohibitive.

However, the long term success of cultivated meat will require innovation and cost reduction across the entire value chain. Many of these innovations aren't important for the short-term goals of the industry, so will likely get pushed off until later. This is where academic research can currently provide value.

One great candidate for this is developing ways to create dirt-cheap basal media from plants, e.g. using hydrolysates. Currently, basal media components are all sourced separately, and are often produced in inefficient ways. For example, individual amino acids are often produced via fermentation and then combined in a single media formulation. This is a much less efficient process compared to current meat production, where amino acids are sourced from soybeans and fed to animals. In the long term, it's likely that cultivated meat will need to move to a system where the main basal media components are grown via agriculture as opposed to biotech. However, it's likely difficult for companies to justify spending a lot of time on this, since basal media is not currently a major cost driver.

avacyn's Shortform

Wayne Hsiung, the co-founder of Direct Action Everywhere (DxE) is running for mayor of Berkeley: https://www.wayneformayor.com/

He's running on a left-leaning platform that doesn't explicitly discuss animals, but he will likely focus on animal-friendly policies. For example, he wants to create a "solar powered, pedestrian-only, and plant-based Green District."

DxE has been fairly controversial in the animal advocacy world, but setting aside questions of their particular tactics, having someone so animal friendly in government could be very impactful. I just donated $50 to the campaign, which is the maximum individual donation.

Does anyone know much about Berkeley politics, and if it seems like he has a shot at winning?

Animal Advocacy Careers advice

I'm a big fan of what you're trying to do! It could be very impactful.

However, I notice that your advice seems to be greatly skewed towards non-profits. For example, in your M&L overview, you don't spend much time on food tech as a potential application of M&L skills. You also don't give any information on the skill gaps currently facing plant-based / cultivated meat. I think this is a missed opportunity, as the gaps in those industry are important, and could be well suited for people who aren't a good fit for management, fundraising, or advocacy.

Is this a purposeful decision? Are you planning to augment this later?

Thanks for all of your work :)

How Much Do Wild Animals Suffer? A Foundational Result on the Question is Wrong.

I'm thankful for this discussion. Previously, I was under the impression that most people who looked deeply into WAS concluded that there was definitely net suffering. However, now it's clear to me this isn't the case.

Brian - I'm wondering if you've explained elsewhere exactly what you mean by "extreme, unbearable suffering can't be outweighed by other organism-moments experiencing pleasure." Is this an expression of negative utilitarianism, or just the empirical claim that current organisms have greater suffering capacity than pleasure capacity?

I am a total hedonic utilitarian, and not negative leaning at all, so I'm wondering what conclusion this philosophical position would lead to, given all the empirical considerations.

Answer by avacynJun 04, 201910

Since most of the responders here are defending x-risk reduction, I wanted to chime in and say that I think your argument is far from ludicrous and is in-fact why I don't prioritize x-risk reduction, even as a total utilitarian.

The main reason it's difficult for me to be on board with pro-x-risk-reduction arguments is that much of it seems to rely on projections about what might happen in the future, which seems very prone to miss important considerations. For example, saying that WAS will be trivially easy to solve once we have an aligned AI, or saying that the future is more likely to be optimized for value rather than disvalue, both seem overconfident and speculative (even if you can give some plausible sounding arguments).

If I were more comfortable with projections about what will happen in the far future, I'm still not sure I would end up favoring x-risk reduction. Take AI x-risk: it's possible that we have a truly aligned AI, or that we have a paperclip maximizer, but it's also possible that we have a powerful general AI whose values are not as badly misaligned as a paperclip maximizer's, but that are somehow dependent on the values of its creators. In this scenario, it seems crucially important to speed up the improvement of humanity's values.

I agree with Moses in that I much prefer a scenario where everything in our light cone is turned into paperclips to one e.g. where humans are wiped out due to some deadly pathogen, but other life continues to exist here and wherever else in the universe. This doesn't necessarily mean that I favor biorisk reduction over AI risk reduction, since AI risk reduction also has the favorable effect of making a remarkable outcome (aligned AI) more likely. I don't know which one I'd favor more all things considered.

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