This is the second piece of our new “Impactful Animal Advocacy Career Paths” series.
Animal suffering is one of the most pressing problems in the world
There are billions of animals who needlessly suffer unimaginable pains and they need your help.
Most people acknowledge that animal suffering is one of many problems in the world. We argue that this is not just a problem, it is also one of the most pressing problems in the world.
Unfortunately, animal suffering does not receive the attention it deserves. We think that this is mostly due to the lack of knowledge about the extent of animal suffering. A lot of people associate animal suffering only with animals that they see in their daily lives, such as companion animals like cats and dogs. And companion animals really do suffer a lot due to various reasons like violence or neglect. In addition, however, there are also other animals that do not capture much public attention and unfortunately suffer even more, both in numbers and degree. Once we expand our horizons and look at all animals and their suffering, we can see that there is much more than what appears on the surface.
The scale of animal suffering is immense
When we think of the amount of animal suffering it is easy to miss the sheer scale of it. This is normal because, unless it is a part of our job, we don’t visit and see the inside of factory farms where a large number of animals reside.
The government statistics show that there are more than 70 billion land animals and billion aquatic animals that are farmed each year.
It may be hard to interpret these numbers, even if we know a lot about animal cruelty. It may be useful to compare them with human populations. Here are the approximate population of some countries:
Denmark: 6 million
Australia: 26 million
United Kingdom: 67 million
Germany: 83 million
Egypt: 109 million
Nigeria: 213 million
Brazil: 214 million
India: 1.3 billion
China: 1.3 billion
Note that the “total” human population in the world is approximately 8 billion. More than 70 billion land animals and billion aquatic animals are farmed and slaughtered every year. This is huge.
Here is a treemap chart with all those numbers to help you visualise:
You might be sceptical of these numbers since it doesn’t really make sense: where are those animals?
The answer to this question is factory farming.
In industrialised animal agriculture, animals are housed in such confined and awful conditions that producers can rear so many animals. Of course, while this has been profitable for the industry, it has been a disaster for animals.
And it is not just the numbers. The degree of suffering is also very high. Most animals abused in factory farms cannot even express their most basic natural behaviours such as moving their limbs, stepping on clear soil, breathing normally, sleeping in peace etc. Their bodies are also designed by breed selection in order to produce maximum product output. This process led animals to have a much worse welfare than their natural counterparts.
A typical animal in a factory farm lives most of its life in plain suffering and it ends with a violent and painful slaughter.
A note about wild animal suffering
There are also billions, even trillions of other animals in the wild. Although we tend to view nature as beautiful and good, nature is not good or evil in itself. Animals living in the wild are dependent on their ability to survive and provide for themselves. Unfortunately, many of them are subject to immense suffering due to predation, cold, hunger, thirst, disease, etc.
We are in close contact with a lot of wild animals too. For instance, humans hunt billions of wild fish every year. Humans also interact with an incredible number of invertebrate animals such as ants, bugs, worms by “pest-control” which results in various forms of suffering in those animals.
There are also animals which do not have direct contact with humans, yet still face suffering. Many animal species have a reproductive “strategy” to produce as many offspring as possible in order to survive as a species, such as bugs, butterflies, frogs, worms, and reptiles.
The vast majority of these young offspring are either killed due to predation, hunger or other disfavorable conditions for surviving.
As a result, it is reasonable to conclude that a significant majority of wild animals have net negative lives, meaning they experience more pain than happiness on average and in total. Whether we “can” really help these animals, that’s another question. But if the suffering of these animals matter, then at least we should take this question seriously and try to give some answers, even if there is a probability that we won’t come up with conclusive answers.
Animal suffering is highly neglected
In face of this immense suffering, the majority of people are indifferent or complicit. The animal agriculture industry is a billion dollar sector and it has billions of customers worldwide. Speciesism, the value system that discriminates against animal interests and ignores their suffering, is prevalent in almost all social groups.
In other social progress cases, we might expect the oppressed or the needy to speak up for themselves as the primary actor. But unfortunately, animals are unable to do that, especially against humans who are much more powerful than them. So, animals need animal advocates who will speak out for them. Animals are innocent, yet unfortunately powerless by themselves.
The number of people working to alleviate and fix this pressing problem is unfortunately small, relative to the sheer size of the problem. This should not necessarily demotivate you since a lot of social progress has been made by “underdogs” in history. On the other hand, this is an opportunity to make a high impact, since additional efforts in this field would generate higher marginal value because this field is neglected and needs more support.
Progress is possible (yet not inevitable)
Although the cards are stacked against animals and animal advocates in many instances, there has been important progress in certain areas.
Certain organisations that focused on institutional animal welfare reforms achieved to change the policies of countless corporations that spared millions of chickens from cages.
Some organisations developed and promoted alternatives to animal products that hold the potential to substitute them.
Some organisations started promising research projects to figure out ways to help wild animals.
Some organisations aim to strengthen and enlarge the advocacy movement.
These are just a few examples. There are countless other achievements that have been turned into reality by animal advocates worldwide.
On the other hand, future animal liberation is not inevitable. Without effective advocacy it is probable that societies’ treatment of animals will not change in time by natural dynamics.
Only compassionate and effective advocates can bring the change that animals deserve. It won’t happen by itself, animal advocates like you have to take action to make it happen.
Animal suffering compared to other problems in the world
We do not need to make a “competition” between the world's problems in order to decide which one is the “most” important. Naturally, all of them require humanity’s attention. And practically speaking, to which problem you should be investing your career would depend heavily on your personal fitness to those fields.
On the other hand, we believe that cause selection is an important decision that may be an important factor for the amount of good you can create by using your career. And at least some people may be fit for and comfortable with working in more than one field, so it may be a reasonable practical question to decide which problem one should focus on in particular.
We think that animal suffering is one of the most important problems in the world due to three reasons that we also partially covered above.
Firstly, the scale of the problem is very high.
Astronomical numbers of animals are raised in horrible conditions and slaughtered each year. We can also add that even much more animal suffering will occur in the long future unless progress for animals is achieved. It is fair to say that total animal suffering in the world is much higher than total human suffering, if we value human and animal interests equally or similarly without putting a higher value on humans due to their specific features.
On the other hand, even if we discount animal suffering due to the higher features of humans like intelligence, it would still be hard to ignore the significance of animal suffering due to its sheer scale.
And while it is doable for an impactful animal advocacy organisation to reach millions of animals and alleviate their suffering (by staging corporate animal welfare campaigns or developing alternatives to animal products for example), it is harder for a human charity to do the same in its region of operation for the simple reason that there are not that many humans suffering to the same degree that of an animal in a factory farm (there might be some exceptions which will be covered shortly).
Secondly, this problem is extremely neglected, in particular the suffering of farmed and wild animals.
Most people empathise more easily with the suffering of other humans. And a significant number of people can and do demand higher welfare for themselves and their loved ones.
For that reason, there are widespread efforts to improve the wellbeing of many social groups in many areas, even though there are still many remaining problems. Funding towards these problems is also more abundant. As a result, it is fair to say that human welfare has improved over the years, and will hopefully continue to improve in the near future due to these existing dynamics.
Unfortunately, the treatment of animals did not improve as humanity progressed in other fields. Factory farming is still the norm in many developed countries and consumption of animal products is not decreasing. Wild animal welfare was almost never a concern or a serious topic until recently. Although there are existing impactful organisations and advocates who do important work, these still remain very small relative to the problem. And the financial resources committed to animal advocacy is miniscule compared to other fields.
This may be surprising at first glance, but the neglectedness of a field is a positive reason to choose that area for impact. When it comes to creating high impact, conventional paths are less promising precisely because there are already other people working on them. Neglected areas like animal advocacy hold much more potential since the marginal utility of an additional person working in a field that only a few people choose to work is higher.
Thirdly, and finally, this is a tractable problem.
Some problems may be very important, but unless there are doable solutions, one can reasonably choose not to work on them.
Animal advocacy, on the other hand, is not like this. There are campaigns with a strong track record of achieving progress and there are also existing alternatives to animal products that do and compete with them. Of course, the tractability of various interventions differs: some projects are harder and more challenging.
But overall, animal advocacy has achieved much in the past, and can achieve much more for animals in the future.
To conclude, we also acknowledge that there might be other pressing problems too, such as extreme poverty or the prevalence of easily preventable and treatable deadly diseases in certain regions of the world, or existential risks like global warming, nuclear war or the emergence of unaligned artificial intelligence.
Choosing between these fields would heavily depend on your viewpoints on the moral weight of animals, judgments about the tractability of solutions in different fields, and probably most importantly, your fitness for these different areas.