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The Benefit of Broad Understanding



Some of the books I read to get a sense of animals' lives from different perspectives. I have been a vegan for 8 years and have been semi-actively involved in animal rights for the past 5 years. Despite this, I have realized that my understanding of many aspects of the lives of animals is surprisingly narrow, and I think this is fairly common for activists in animal advocacy (or any movement, really). As the project I am now working on is recommending charities that should be founded in the animal advocacy movement and providing an incubation camp for them, I feel the need to broaden my understanding of these issues.


Why a broad understanding matters There are a few reasons as to why striving for a broad understanding can increase long-term impact. The first is to get a truer and less biased sense of the world. Animal advocacy activists have an incentive to show the worst of the worst that goes on in factory farms. Likewise, the industry has an incentive to show only the best living conditions. But ideally, you want to have a good sense of the true state and variability of conditions. For example, some of the most graphic scenes in a video are focused on pigs and cows, but day-to-day life is far worse for a chicken, even if it does not yield as emotionally salient a clip. This is often obvious if you visit a farm but less clear in much of the anti-factory farming content. The second major benefit is that broad research provides distinct information on different, and often more focused, domains (e.g. animal behavior under stress). For example, a few books I read discussed how animals grieve, which changed some of my views about how to mitigate psychological distress in a farm setting. This sort of information is hard to get from more standardized anti-factory farming sources. The third major benefit is due to the synergistic benefits of cross-domain knowledge. For example, an activist book might tell me that corporate outreach has been effective in the past, while another book written by someone in husbandry might educate me on the detailed conditions of how chickens live on a farm and what behaviors they exhibit when given a choice between two toys. Together, these books might give me an interesting idea for a good future lobbying technique. How to achieve a broad understanding 1) Reading diverse sources For example, one might break down the content produced in animal rights into three distinctive groups.

  • Group 1 - Work produced by animal advocacy activists: anything from movies like Vegucated to books like The Animal Activist’s Handbook. This group of work is what most animal activists read, and there is a good case to be made that this is the most important content, but I would argue it gives a fairly shallow understanding of the world by itself. This sort of content generally covers the negative aspects of factory farming, alongside possible solutions (e.g. clean meat, grassroots outreach).

  • Group 2 - Work produced by people in the animal husbandry world. Despite animal activists and farm workers often having fairly different views on issues like animal suffering, there is still a lot to learn from all of their written content. For example, what specific situations that commonly happen on a farm stress out an animal? How do different breeds respond to different environmental conditions? What do farm animals tend to do when given high levels of freedom? This content is highly useful for an animal activist.

  • Group 3 - People fairly independent of the animal rights movement. Most of the world, of course, falls outside of both these groups: whether it’s an economist analyzing meat elasticity or a futurist talking about what they expect the future of farming to be (theirs are generally different than activists’ takes). People outside of the animal rights and animal husbandry camps produce a lot of useful content that can be directly applied to helping animals.

Readings from each of these sources can provide a broader understanding. I am not talking about self-identity or goals – in those terms, I clearly fall more into group 1 than any of the others. But in terms of useful knowledge, I think it's beneficial to have a broader scope. 2) Seeing the entire supply chain – directly Another way to get a broad understanding of the matter is to witness firsthand (or familiarize oneself with) each step of the process. When I worked in the poverty space, I was one of the few people who talked to every employee at every level of an organization. This often yielded different results: for example, we worked with a company where I talked to the CEO, manager, field manager, head surveyor, and standard surveyor. As I got closer to where the work was being done, I got more and more accurate (and often negative) information. In the context of animal rights, visiting a farm (or preferably, a few farms) can paint a more complete picture. By witnessing each step of the work done in multiple farms you can start to get more of a sense of what really happens there, contrary to the carefully selected images published in the content to argue for or against animal welfare. For example, how do the highest standard farms (e.g. AWA or GAP level 5+), compare to a sanctuary? Is the main difference that animals are slaughtered, or are there noticeable day-to-day differences in quality of life as well? Visiting multiple farms is something that relatively few people do as it comes with a fairly high time cost, but I also think it provides a different angle on what is currently neglected in the animal movement. For example, it gives a much stronger intuitive sense of rates and severity of different issues, something that can be very hard to find in academic research. Overall, we feel that aiming for a broader understanding is worth the time it takes to increase the accuracy of our world models and turn up new ideas that might be currently neglected in the animal movement. The techniques listed above are just a few of many ways to achieve a broader understanding. Other ways include speaking to a wide range of people both within (like our animal experts survey) and outside of the animal advocacy movement, or working directly in any related field.

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