60,000,000,000 Chickens

Launch post and writeup for 60B Chickens describing the inputs into and results of the analysis, along with considerations that didn’t make it into the final model.

Click here to view the full landing page

The meat industry breeds horrors on an unprecedented scale. History has never before witnessed suffering at this scale, nor seen it inflicted so carelessly and senselessly.

In 2013 alone, we slaughtered 60 billion chickens.

By comparison, the worst human tragedies cap out at around 145 million by even the most pessimistic estimates. If it’s difficult to conceive of numbers this large, think of it this way: you could murder 145 million human beings very year for the rest of your life and still not get to the chicken death toll for a single year. In fact, only around 100 billion humans have ever existed.

We can’t even blame any of this on our historical savagery. With all our sci-fi technology and economic progress, we are still choosing to commit these atrocities. In fact, it is precisely those advances that allow factory farming to function at this unfathomably grotesque industrial-scale.

Now perhaps you could argue from the standpoint of speciest solipsism. Whatever the cortical neuron counts say, we don’t really know what happens inside the brain of a chicken. Do they suffer? Are they even really conscious?

It suffices to say–as a general moral principle–if there is reasonable doubt as to whether or not a creature suffers, you should probably not kill 60 billion of them every year.

At this point, any reasonable person would just stop eating meat. But I’m not reasonable, just rationalist. So okay, let’s do the moral calculus.

Scott Alexander, Kelsey Piper and Brian Tomasik have done some preliminary analysis, but it’s a lot to take in and hard to follow.

You can see the landing page here, and view the full analysis here. The rest of this post explains some of the calculations, as well as other considerations that didn’t make it into the final model.

Here’s the math on moral/financial fungibility:

  • For 1000 calories of meat, chicken produces 2kg CO2-equivalent, versus 10kg CO2-equivalent for cows
    • CO2 offsets cost around $10/tonne, or $0.01/kg.
  • Both species provide ~260g protein and ~2500 calories per kg of meat
  • Per life, chicken produces around 1.9kg of meat, versus 212kg for cows
  • Chicken costs ~$7/kg, beef costs ~$8.8/kg
  • Due to elasticity, reducing consumption by 1kg only reduces production by ~0.7kg for both chickens and cows

If you’re not eating meat, you have to replace the protein and calories. At baseline, flour is 4,464 calories/dollar and 134g protein/dollar.

Since we’re talking about financially offsetting meat consumption, this analysis does not rely on estimating the relative moral patienthood of chickens versus cows, or their relative living conditions. [0]

Perhaps the most important number is the cost to prevent an animal from being farmed. Initial estimates were as low as $0.10/life, but later came under scrutiny. One estimate puts the cost at $5.70 to save a chicken life, with pigs being around $150. Since that implies costs scales about linearly with meat-produced, I’m assuming $636 to save a cow’s life, but these numbers are all speculative. Note also that these are estimates for one particular intervention.

From these conversions, we can calculate the “true” financial cost for each animal. Chicken comes out to $3.42/kcal versus $4.18/kcal for beef. Anchoring on protein yields similar results: $2.76/100g for chicken and $3.48/100g for beef. [1]

Finally, what about plant-based meat alternatives? As Kelsey Piper writes:

plant-based products are already difficult to distinguish from the originals, while having a lighter carbon footprint and no impact on animals. If you avoid beef by switching to plant-based meat products, you really are improving the world and improving conditions for the humans and animals that live on it.

The problem is still cost. Beyond Beef is $6.74/lb or $14.83/kg on Amazon (cross-check), versus just $8.80/kg for cow beef, or $10.93 for suffering and carbon offset cow beef. In other words, for the price of 1kg Beyond Beef, you could get a kg of cow beef, and use the remaining money to offset 6kg worth of meat. [2]

So it’s not cost-effective short-term. In the long run, maybe there are benefits to demonstrating demand for plant-based meat alternatives, but that’s hard to quantify and I’m skeptical. You’re probably better off eating cow beef and donating the $6.03/kg to the Good Food Institute which accelerates the development of plant-based proteins.

Thanks to Scott Alexander, Kelsey Piper and Brian Tomasik for their previous work on this topic, and providing many of the numbers this analysis relies upon. All errors are mine.


[0] If you’re curious anyway:

  • Chickens are treated much worse than cows. Brian Tomasik estimates as 3x multiple.
  • Cows are smarter than chickens, and are perhaps more “sentient” or morally important. The estimated multiple varies, but some sources say ~2x, 10x or 6x or 8x.

[1] As Scott points out, normal reasoning starts to break down here. If you really can offset 1kg of CO2 for just $0.01, the lesson isn’t that you can eat all the chicken you want. The lesson is that you should pour all your money into CO2 offsets!

Alternatively, rather than asking “how much does it cost to eat ethically neutral chicken”, you should just ask “how can I do the most good with my money?” Stated otherwise, I don’t really get the Supererogatory approach to ethics, and see failing to do good as similar to causing harm.

In that worldview, the real cost of 1kg chicken meat isn’t $8.55, it’s the 4 mosquito nets you could purchase for that same amount, with $0.55 leftover to eat rice and beans.

[2] Beyond Beef has its own carbon footprint. They claim to emit 90% less GHG than cow beef, which makes the offset negligible.

The Irony of “Longtermism”

See also: The Irony of “Progress Studies”

Defined by Will MacAskill for EA Forum, Longtermist is “the view that the most important determinant of the value of our actions today is how those actions affect the very long-run future.”

The irony is that this only holds true in the abstract. According to an Open Philanthropy estimate and AI Expert Surveys, there’s a 50% chance of transformative Artificial Intelligence emerging by around 2050. If that happens, basically nothing we do in the meantime will matter, at least not with regards to total expected utility. Ensuring that the AI is safe, human-aligned, benevolent, etc, is of primary and nearly sole importance.

If you take this idea seriously, we should be obsessed with the short term to the exclusion of all other timescales.

This has practical implications. For example: should you expend energy cultivating the next generation of scientists, or just focus on your own research output? If we seriously only have 30 years, the latter becomes much more compelling.

Similarly, if you’re serious about longtermism, the altruistic case for having children becomes much weaker. Particularly precocious offspring might be able to productively do longtermism-relevant work in their mid-twenties, but that’s not enough time to recuperate the cost of raising them. [1][2]

The average age of respondents to EA Survey 2019 was 31. Similarly, SSC’s Survey gives a median reader age of 30. So even if it’s a bit over 30 years to transformative AI, it’s not as if the existing cohort of longtermists will die off. Will MacAskill will be just 63 in 2050, Hilary Greaves 71 and Toby Ord 70. Nick Bostrom will be the oldest at 77, but he reportedly skips meals to drink a vegetable “elixir”, so I think he’ll be okay.

Quick step back: I’ve been duplicitous in my use of “concern”. The longtermist mindset is something like: “We care immensely about the long-term, that’s why we focus immense on the short-term”. But that’s precisely my point. This isn’t a deep contradiction, it’s not hypocritical. It’s just ironic.

Score another point for nominative anti-determinism.

[1] If you’re really altruistic (and perhaps sociopathic), you could have kids who you never see, though perhaps children treated that way are unlikely to follow in your footsteps, and may actually be perversely likely to become some kind of scorned longtermism supervillain.

[2] This also means Alexey Guzey’s offhand criticism doesn’t land with any particular force.

As usual, you could have skipped this entire post and just read a tweet instead.

The Moral Foundations of Progress

Since I first read Stubborn Attachments in 2018, I’ve struggled with its foundational provocations. Has growth been good? Will it continue to be in the future? What if it kills us all first? Today, I’m finally prepared to share an article aimed at answering these questions.

The Moral Foundations of Progress is available here as a pdf.

This is the culmination of my thoughts on Progress Studies as an intellectual movement, and also on the budding institutions that surrounds it. Though I’ve previously written abstractly about the need for foundational assumptions, in this new piece, I actually argue for them.

In other words, don’t worry too much about “field-building”. Simply embark on a quest to rigorously answer important questions, and invite others to join in the adventure.

With that in mind, I hope my article will inspire work far beyond its relatively narrow scope. Work not only in research and writing, but in institution building, community organizing and movement towards applications.

If you would like to get involved in any capacity, you can find my contact details here. I look forward to hearing from you.

Thanks to Leopold Aschenbrenner, Basil Halperin, Alvaro de Menard, and Philip Trammell for their comments on an earlier draft.