The following is a fictional story to illustrate a point.
The two interventions were both urgent. Animal Issues - Canada had been considering which of the two to pick for months. Jeremy thought that they should work on geese, as they had a significantly lower welfare standard than other in Canada. It looked clear to him that they should move the majority of their resources onto campaigns aimed at increasing the welfare of geese. However, his co-director disagreed. Jenny had been researching ducks and thought they were even more important than geese, since the ducks were slightly more numerous, although slightly better treated than the geese. It was a hard call, and so they chose to flip a coin. Both interventions were good, and flipping a coin seemed like a fair way of deciding, but both Executive Directors agreed that whatever the outcome, they would dedicate themselves to the issue.
But the coin betrayed them.
It told them to work on geese, and so they did for years - the two of them were ambitious and talented activists, and thus they made considerable progress. They would have made progress with ducks as well, but they had to choose one. Unfortunately, they had chosen wrong. As they won victories for geese, the goose population was decreasing. Each year, less and less geese were farmed, not because of the activists’ victories, but independent of them. Goose was going out of style - less geese were being farmed everywhere and not just in Canada. And although their improvements had been huge, during the 5 years they had worked on the issue, the goose population had shrunk by almost 50%, meaning that their improvements only affected half as many individuals as they predicted they would.
Duck populations, on the other hand, had exploded, and there were now twice as many ducks as there had been when they had first made the calculation. 5 years later, to their dismay, they compared what would have happened if they had been working on ducks instead of geese, and, sadly, their calculations showed that they could have saved four times as many animals if they had made the same amounts of progress. In some cases, they could not have known which group would grow and which would shrink, but in this case, the data was there and they just had not looked. If they had looked at the trends from the last 5 years before, it would have been clear that ducks were a growing problem and geese were a shrinking one. They had not taken into account the ‘unique timing’. They had not targeted the duck industry when it was young, and now it would be an uphill battle to switch over to a much more established duck farming industry. The solution to this problem was not to invest time and attention by half and half in each. The solution would have been to take a deeper look at the future trends in the farming industry to try to determine what area would have been more important both then and after 5 years.
When we are evaluating which is the best charity to start, we want to take into account both the long and near-term effects. Within animal issues, one major factor to take into account is the tractability, or ease of implementation. But another factor to take into account is the question of if now is the right or wrong time to pursue a specific intervention? Some interventions might be particularly tractable or easy to implement right now, while on the flip side, others might be uniquely difficult. A clear example of this is how established the factory farming industry is: if it is well-established in a country (has a lobbying team, possesses already built infrastructure, makes a large profit, and so on) it will be harder to run a corporate campaign or pass a government law in order to change the standards. Another example: it’s easier to change the size of battery cages (or ban them altogether) before the industry has bought them. Sadly, there are few areas were factory farming has not been established at all. However, there are areas that are growing and others that are shrinking.
The graphic shows the change over time of aquaculture production vs the wild capture of fish. It’s clear that aquaculture is gaining market share with wild capture stagnating, and there is good reason to think that this trend will continue with wild capture getting harder as the wild fish supplies are reduced.
This graph suggests that if we want welfare reforms to pass on aquaculture, the sooner the better, because the industry will likely get larger and more established over time. On the flip side, now might be a uniquely bad time to use up resources passing reforms for wild fish, as it’s more likely that the industry will shrink instead of grow going forwards. For example, if you thought the two different welfare interventions “Humane slaughter of fish” and “Increasing dissolved oxygen levels to improve water quality” are about equally important, then the ‘unique timing’ consideration could change your view. An intervention like “Dissolved oxygen” (which generally will be impossible to execute with wild fish, and thus targets aquafarm fish) might look more promising to go forward with right now (it aims to hit before the aquaculture industry gets any larger) than something like slaughter (which targets both wild and aquaculture fish). This would be even more significant a factor for an intervention that just affects wild fish (e.g. bycatch reduction strategies).
Overall, the timing of an intervention should be carefully considered, and interventions that have uniquely good timing should be prioritized over those that do not or those that could be more effectively done at a different time. This is a factor our team is going to consider when recommending new charities. Right now, this would mean targeting countries with low but growing animal production rates, such as Bangladesh, and targeting industry trends like aquaculture.