review of Peter Singer’s book Animal Liberation Now

This book is a scathing condemnation of humanity’s behavior toward animals. It focuses on two areas: the use of animals in (frequently pointless) scientific experiments, and the soul-crushingly cruel practices that are pervasive in the meat and dairy industries. I knew about a lot of this already, but reading some of the details again was kind of overwhelming. The scale of society’s crimes—crimes I have been complicit in as a consumer—is staggering.

In the past I haven’t been too concerned about animals used in experiments, because I was under the impression there weren’t that many of them. Relative to the numbers used in food production, this is certainly true, but there are still a lot: Singer estimates “100 million to 200 million used annually worldwide”. Most of these are “rats, mice, and birds”, and in the United States experiments on those species aren’t even regulated. Singer describes some of the physical and psychological torments animals are subjected to in the name of scientific research, and argues that very few of these experiments yield information of any practical value at all, let alone sufficient value to justify the creatures’ intense suffering.

Sometimes they’re performed to fulfill product-safety-testing regulations—which may sound important, but both the necessity and validity of the tests are often questionable. (Singer reports some encouraging progress in that area, like the EU ban on animal testing for cosmetics, and US cosmetics companies developing alternative tests in response to consumer pressure.) Other times the experiments are done in the vague hope that the knowledge gained will someday be beneficial in an as-yet-unclear way. Sometimes they seem to serve no purpose beyond giving an aspiring academic something to write a dissertation about.

Once a pattern of animal experimentation becomes the accepted mode of research in a particular field, the process is self-perpetuating. In fields dominated by professors who have built their careers on experimenting on animals, not only publications and promotions but also the awards and grants that finance research become geared toward animal experiments.

As for the food industry: tens of billions of animals are slaughtered each year, but it’s not the killing per se that troubles me; it’s the animals’ living conditions. Some of the horrors that make up daily life, depending on the species, include: continual confinement in spaces so tight they can barely move; being kept chronically hungry; chronic health problems due to being bred for traits that maximize production; repeated forced insemination (which they visibly struggle to resist); separation of mothers and children; cutting off parts of beaks and tails to make the animals easier to manage… And of course when the time does come to kill them, the market does not optimize for painlessness. Slaughterhouses are under immense pressure to process the animals quickly and cheaply, so mistakes get made—mistakes like conscious creatures getting butchered or boiled alive.

If we agree this situation is unacceptable, what can we do about it? One of the things Singer wants us to do is become vegan. I’ve been convinced that I should do that for years. But as a very picky eater whose diet has largely consisted of meat and cheese for most of my life, it’s a stressful prospect for me. One way I’ve attempted to slightly assuage my conscience is by an argument Singer summarizes as follows:

…some have questioned whether our individual purchasing decisions really can make a difference to the number of animals raised and killed. They point out that one person’s decision to avoid buying, say, a factory-farmed chicken corpse at a supermarket isn’t likely to make any difference to the number of chickens raised and killed. That’s because supermarket purchasing policies are not so fine-tuned that one fewer chicken sold this week will mean a reduced number of chickens ordered next week, let alone a reduced number of chicks hatched and transported to the growers who raise them.

It’s a bad argument, as he explains:

…the laws of supply and demand dictate that a lower demand for chicken corpses must, eventually, lead to a lower order from the supermarket and thus a lower number of chickens raised. There must be a threshold at which the supermarket’s order will rise or fall, and to ignore the chance that your purchase will trigger this change is to ignore the “expected value”—or rather, in this case, “expected disvalue”—of your purchase.

He mentions that the book Compassion, by the Pound contains “some empirical confirmation of this idea”. I would have liked more details (so I guess I’ll go read that) but I think the burden of proof really lies on meat-eaters here anyway. Every additional individual raised in factory farms is a tragedy: a whole additional life spent mostly in misery. Even a modest chance at preventing just one or two instances of that is valuable.

The people who profit by exploiting large numbers of animals do not need our approval. They need our money.