So a few weeks ago I got an infection that’s quite painful to have. The infection is gone but the pain lingers on, and according to my doctor can linger for months.

I realized today that I am still exhausted from being sick, as well as being involved in the planning of three major events over the last six months or so – Frozen Perl, my AR group’s fundraising banquet, and our conference this past weekend.

To compound things, because of the pain I’m in, I can’t sleep comfortably lying down, so I’ve been sleeping a comfy chair in my living room for a few weeks. I was really dreading trying to sleep in a hotel, since they wouldn’t have comfy chairs.

So I decided to cancel the trip, even though I really didn’t want to. My wife helped me realize that I needed to.

Fortunately, Shawn Moore, Jon Rockway, and Stevan Little are helping make sure the Moose class will still happen. Some of the content will be slightly different, but I think it will still be quite good. I’ve already written a little more than half the material, and I will write some more over the next few days. Shawn and Jon also have existing talks that cover topics I wanted to cover in the class, so they will include those talks.

Overall, I think the class will work out, and I’m really thankful to Shawn, Jon, and Stevan for agreeing to jump in at the last minute. Since the class is on Sunday, I’m sure people have arranged their travel schedules specifically to be there, and I’d really be sad if there was no class for them to attend.

I’m still planning to be at OSCON (I better be recovered enough by then), and I’m still considering YAPC::Asia.

I hope everyone has a good time in Pittsburgh.

I’ve been thinking about this idea of ruthless pragmatism over the last few days. What is ruthless pragmatism? How can we actually be ruthlessly pragmatic? Do we even want to be?

Defining ruthless pragmatism is harder than you might think. The problem is that it’s easy to claim we’re being pragmatic, but I think mostly that consists of acting out our biases. If you are inclined to think that people won’t hear our (animal rights) message, you’ll probably tend towards so-called “direct action”, because you think that intimidation and property damage are the most pragmatic approach. If you think otherwise, maybe you tend towards outreach and education. Either way, it’s easy to give lip service to pragmatism.

The other problem of definition is one of scope. Anyone concerned with animal rights should also be concerned about human rights. For example, non-human animals might be best served by the forced extinction of the human species, but that doesn’t consider all animals’ rights. Similarly, we need to be careful not to sacrifice other social justice issues on the altar of animal rights.

But I think a ruthless pragmatist needs to have an even broader and longer-term view. It’s easy to push yourself to give 150% for animals all of the time, but how long can that last? If you are unhappy with your life, will you be a lifelong activist? Is it better to push as hard as possible for ten years and then stop, or should you aim for a reduced effort over fifty years? If you engage in actions that violate your own sense of justice, are you being pragmatic, or does the inevitable psychological backlash make this ineffective in the long run?

These are all hard questions. It’s easy to say things like “by any means necessary” or “we must all do things we don’t like”, but I’m not convinced that this attitude is truly pragmatic. It certainly feels pragmatic. Activists, more than most, are prone to mistake self-denial and self-abuse for pragmatism. It’s easy to look at all the suffering in the world and think that only if you are personally unhappy are you really doing all you can. But that’s a trap that leads to burnout and increased despair. If you’ve been active in animal rights for a while, you’ve probably known people who’ve left the movement, many giving up veganism or even going back to eating meat. A pragmatic movement will do its best to keep people active and living their values for their entire life.

There’s another part of ruthless pragmatism that we’re missing as activists, and that’s measurement. I’ve heard very little in the movement about concrete strategies for measuring the success of various actions. Does the ALF have a feedback loop built-in? Do they stop and evaluate every few years? Sure, they may measure their economic damage, but do they actually have a way to evaluate the impact of that damage?

But let’s not pick on the ALF. Do we at Compassionate Action for Animals do this? We do, actually, but we could do much better! Most of our metrics are not measuring the actual impact on animals. Instead, we measure things like number of attendees at events and their evaluations, number of leaflets distributed, etc. These are all interesting, but we haven’t actually established a concrete connection between these numbers and the actual impact on animals. Even worse, we don’t have any good way to figure out if we should be doing some other set of activities entirely.

Pragmatism requires more than measurement after the fact. We also need to constantly be on the lookout for new research to direct our actions. As a movement, I don’t hear much talk about the latest research in psychology, sociology, or economics. Much as it may be painful, we need to take a page from Madison Avenue and figure out the best ways to influence people (hint to the so-called abolitionists, it’s not logical argument!). More and more these days, research is showing that people’s behavior is shaped by unconscious factors they can’t even articulate. How can we take advantage of that in our movement?

So do we want to be ruthlessly pragmatic? I’ll give that a qualified “yes”. First, we need to expand the scope of our ruthlessness. Our ruthlessness must be both ethical and sustainable. Anything else just isn’t ruthless or pragmatic enough. Second, we need to work past our built-in biases and use measurement and research to make our actions as effective as possible.

I’m not trying to pick on pattrice, I promise. In fact, I thought her keynote was thoughtful and thought-provoking, and that means I actually have something to say about it.

During her keynote, pattrice stated that meat consumption is at an all time high. I can’t argue with the raw numbers. More animals are being killed for food now than ever in the past. But I’m getting a little tired of hearing this fact quoted without any context.

First, I think it’s important to realize that meat consumption has been going up for a long time. I don’t have any facts to point to (I’m lazy), but it’s reasonable to assume that meat consumption started increasing long before there was an animal rights movement. In fact, increases in meat consumption probably date back to the beginning of agriculture, when people were able to raise animals, rather than having to hunt them.

The beginning of the modern animal rights movement is generally placed some time in the 1970s. Many people say it began with the publication of Animal Liberation in 1975. The fact that meat consumption has increased since the movement began is part of a longer historical trend of more people having more money, and also the increased industrialization of meat production. So meat has gotten cheaper, and more people have more money to buy it.

Additionally, since the animal rights movement began, the worldwide human population has increased dramatically. In the US alone, our population went from 200 million in 1970 to 300 million in 2007.

We can measure the success of the animal rights movement in part by measuring the increase in meat consumption against the increase in the human population. If we really wanted to get fancy, we’d also measure it against the percentage of people living in poverty (more richer people means more meat).

Ultimately, I don’t know if we’re winning. I do think pattrice (and many others) are using the wrong metrics, and statements based on said metrics are useless at best, and harmful at worst.

If anyone out there is doing any solid work on understanding trends in meat consumption as part of larger population and wealth trends, I’d love to know about it.

Update: The first version of this entry was all mixed up with the next entry. That’s now fixed.

This past weekend’s TLOV 2009 conference is over, and I have a lot to think about. In particular, I both agreed and disagreed with much of pattrice jones’ keynote on Sunday afternoon.

Her keynote outlined an approach to animal rights based on the axiom that “animals exist”. This means that animals are creatures with desires that need to respected right now, as opposed to in some future theoretical sense. As a consequence, this requires animal activists to act with “ruthless pragmatism”, which may mean doing things that make us ethically uncomfortable.

I (mostly) agree.

She said that simply getting people to go vegan is not enough. She stated that in order to win we have to both reduce demand and raise the costs of doing (animal abuse) business.

I agree with this as well, but with some caveats.

Pattrice praised both the ALF as well as welfare legistation like Prop 2. It’s true, both do raise the costs of doing business. The welfare legislation also has a real impact on actual animals, and so is worthy in and of itself (as long as there’s not something even more useful we could be doing).

But let’s tackle the ALF. Is the ALF ruthlessly pragmatic? I don’t think so. In fact, the ALF is one of the most idealistic “organizations” I know of. Certainly, they’re not metrics-based, methodical, or any of the other things I associate with pragmatism.

Pattrice says that the ALF has cost animal abuse industries millions of dollars through their vandalism and animal releases over the years of their existence. So how much is “millions”? In 2002, The FBI testified before Congress that the ALF and ELF combined had caused $43 million in damage since 1996. From my reading online, it seems like ELF is more damaging in their activities, but let’s be generous and split it. That means that the ALF is doing approximately $20 million in damage (in the US) every five years.

The first question, then, is does this damage raise the cost of doing business? Second, is this the most effective thing that these activists could be doing?

I think the first question is relatively easy to answer. In the US alone in 2006, the mink “crop” sold for approximately $136 million at auction. Looking back at previous years, wholesale mink pelt values at auction were more than $1 billion from 1998-2007.

So we have an industry making $1 billion in 10 years (in the US alone) at wholesale! The retail amounts are even more staggering. Retail fur sales were $1.34 billion in 2007 alone.

So given those numbers, is it reasonable to think that the ALF’s generously estimated $40 million in the same time period had an impact on the fur industry? I don’t think so. Even if all $40 million in damage had been taken just by mink “farmers” (which it wasn’t), that’s less than 5% of their income. Unless their margins are ridiculously low, it’s hard to imagine this being a major problem.

Even if this caused a 5% increase in retail costs, fur coats are a luxury good. Luxury goods have a lot of price elasticity, and a 5% increase in price may have a 0% impact on sales! And given the 10x markup from wholesale to retail, there’s clearly room for retailers to absorb a 5% increase in the costs paid to wholesalers.

This might all sounds like I’m saying that the ALF just needs to get out there and do a lot more damage. At some amount of damage, they would be able to have a serious impact on prices, and this would eventually decrease sales, which in turn would decrease production.

The problem with this approach is that we haven’t yet looked at the costs to the animal rights movement. I’d love to argue that the ALF’s actions are detrimental to the movement as a whole. They make us look bad, and make it hard to get people to listen to us. But that’s a somewhat nebulous argument.

A more solid argument is that the costs to the ALF activists themselves are very, very high. Any activist who is involved in a significantly damaging action wil become a high-priority target for law enforcement. The most likely outcome is that they will be caught, turned into witnesses against their cohorts, and/or put in jail for long periods of time. Either way, they are no longer able to be activists for a significant period of time, and they are certainly not able to repeat their ALF actions on a regular basis.

So the price of “success” for an ALFer is to stop being an activist for a non-trivial amount of time. Of course, this “success” also imposes a cost on the larger movement, as well-meaning supporters spend money and time on the ALFer’s legal defense and jail support.

The animal rights movement cannot compete with animal ag when it comes to money. In their 2007 fiscal year, HSUS had approximately $100 million in income. HSUS is by far the biggest 501c3 working on animal rights in the US, and arguably only some of their money goes to “animal rights” work (I’m not knocking HSUS for that, BTW, I think they’re great).

PETA, which is probably the next biggest organization, brought in about $30 million.

That’s pocket change compared to the combined financial resources of the animal abuse industries. Mink wholesale alone is equivalent to the income of the two top AR charities in the US. The fur industry is miniscule compared to farmed animals. In 2007, beef producers alone brought in $50 billion wholesale.

That’s a lot of big numbers, and it seems overwhelming. How can we possibly win? Well, we need to be ruthlessly pragmatic. I think that strategic nonviolence is the ruthlessly pragmatic philosophy that shows us the way to victory.

Strategic nonviolence analyzes the disparity in power between us and our opponents, and shows us that we do have one big advantage. We are on the side of justice, and our cause is morally persuasive. Animals do deserve equal consideration, and they are being horribly tortured by humans. We can use this morally persuasive argument to convince members of the public to join our cause and support us.

But we cannot fight toe-to-toe with money or violence. Our opponents can outspend and outfight us quite easily. We cannot engage them on the battlegrounds where they are strongest.

We will not win unless our movement grows quite significantly. How will we know it’s grown big enough? Instead of covert releases of animals at night, 1,000 of us will march to a factory farm and liberate animal in broad daylight, unopposed. 500 of us will stand arm-in-arm blocking a slaughterhouse entry, and we’ll do it every day for a month. When we do these things, the public at large will praise our bravery and commitment to equal consideration for all beings.

But we’re not there yet.