Our three most harmful activities and how to minimize them

Does your existence contribute positively or negatively to the world? Of course, you can help other people and make people happier in all kinds of ways. But if during your life, you cause more harm than benefits, then your net contribution is negative. To understand our impact in the world, we have to look at our most harmful activities. But first, we have to make a distinction between three kinds of harm: abusive, accidental and aversive harm.

Three kinds of harm

Abusive harm consists of using a victim in ways that that individual does not want. Using someone means that the presence of the individual is required to achieve someone else’s ends. Abusing someone means not only that the presence is required, but also that the victim has to do or undergo unwanted things (does not want that use). Abusive harm is always an intentional harm. From the three kinds of harm, abusive harm is probably the most immoral, because it is considered extremely bad in deontological rights-based ethics. Abusive harm is a violation of the right not to be used as merely a means to someone else’s ends, or the right to bodily autonomy (the idea that your body belongs to you and no-one else may use your body against your will).

Sexual abuse or buying products made from slavery are examples of abusive harm. But I think there is one activity in particular that causes the most abusive harm and is performed by most people: the consumption of animal products. Each year roughly one trillion vertebrate animals (mostly broiler chicken and fish) are killed and used for human consumption. The living conditions of most farm animals are horrible: they probably have a net negative welfare.

Accidental harm is unintended harm caused to a victim. As the harm is not intentional, the victim was not used. Accidental harm is often considered less immoral than abusive harm. For example, a driver who accidentally kills a child in a traffic accident caused a much less serious crime than a cannibal who intentionally kills and eats a child (even if the child of the traffic accident suffered more, had better future life prospects or has more friends and family who are in grief, than the child who is eaten by the cannibal).

Causing an accident and polluting the environment are examples of accidental harm (pollution causes harm to e.g. wild animals and future generations). Although accidental harm is less immoral than abusive harm, and the abusive harm of animal agriculture is extremely big, some human activities cause a lot of accidental harm as well. It is not clear what human activity causes the most accidental harm, but probably the burning of fossil fuels that causes climate change will be somewhere at the top, as is accidentally killing a lot of animals (insects, small vertebrates) in agriculture (e.g. during harvest or plowing).

Aversive harm is intentional harm when the perpetrator dislikes the victim. The aversion towards the victim means that the perpetrator prefers the absence of the victim. Hence, the victim is not used as a means. When the harm is caused out of self-defense or the protection of one’s property, this harm is mostly considered less immoral than abusive and accidental harm.

Hate crimes and passionate murders are examples of aversive harm, but I expect that most readers are not involved in such crimes. When it comes to aversive harm caused by most people, the biggest culprit is probably agriculture. To protect our crops, we apply pest control and insecticides that harm (kill) animals. Pest control is a kind of self-defense, and it is not always clear whether pest control contributes negatively to the aggregate welfare in the world. For example, when most wild animals have net negative welfare, pest control means that fewer of those animals will be born, which prevents negative experiences. And if animals who feed on our crops would have net positive welfare, one could argue that those happier animals owe their existence to our agricultural activities. Without our agriculture, those animals would not have been born. And when those animals could not eat our crops, they may die from starvation. These considerations imply that this aversive harm could be much less immoral than abusive and accidental harm. Nevertheless, in terms of numbers of sentient individuals being killed, the aversive harm caused by agriculture is probably the biggest human-caused harm (at least if invertebrate animals such as insects are sentient).

How to minimize harm

The impact of human activity is often expressed in a mathematical equation: I = P x A x T, where I is the environmental impact, P the population, A the affluence and T the technology factor. This equation can also describe human-caused harm as the product of the human population (P, the number of humans), the average activity per person (A) and the harm caused per unit activity (T, depending on the technology used for the activity).

The three factors indicate how we can reduce our harm or impact: reduce the human population P, the activity level A or the technology factor T. When it comes to daily personal decisions, reducing the level of harmful activities could sometimes be feasible. Driving less or flying less could be possible, but eating less is often more difficult. It is clear that reductions of P and A cannot drive the impact all the way to zero, unless the population or activity level approach zero. This means that one factor is really crucial for minimizing harm: technology. Only with technologies it is feasible to drive the impact all the way to zero.

Focusing on the technology factor T has two main benefits. It not only has the potential to completely eliminate (instead of merely reduce) harm, but also doesn’t require much behavioral change or political action. Changing your own behavior could be easy and effective, but convincing everyone else to change their behavior is much more difficult (requiring a lot of time and effort). Technologies can make political action more feasible: when we have a cheap, effective new technology that reduces harm, it becomes more politically feasible to ban the old, more harmful technologies. In other words: a techno-fix could be more effective than a behavioral fix or political fix.

The two benefits of the technology focus imply that research and development of new technologies that reduce harm, is very effective. Economists have shown that e.g. the social returns to R&D are very high. So we have to look for the best technologies that can reduce the abovementioned three types of harm.

Clean meat, and more generally animal-free and cellular agriculture, is the first highly effective technology that allows to minimize and eliminate abusive harm caused by animal agriculture. Clean energy (carbon-free energy) is most effective to eliminate the accidental harms caused by climate change (although animal-free agriculture is also promising, as it can strongly reduce agricultural land use and allow for massive reforestation). And indoor vertical agriculture could be the most promising technology to decrease the aversive and accidental harms caused in agriculture.

Indoor vertical farming has two benefits, as indicated by the two adjectives ‘indoor’ and ‘vertical’. First, it is indoor, which means that crops are grown in well-controlled environments, with difficult access for rodents and insects. The crops are better protected against pests. This reduces the use of rodenticides and insecticides, and hence reduces aversive harm. Second, it is vertical, which means that the crops are not dependent on soil. Hydroponic and aeroponic systems allow for the crops to grow in water or air instead of soil. These soil-free agriculture systems reduce the use of heavy outdoor machinery and soil tilling, and hence reduce accidental harm. Other agricultural practices, such as organic agriculture (when outdoor and in soil), are less effective in reducing accidental and aversive harms.

What you can do to eliminate harm

Cellular agriculture, vertical agriculture and clean energy are three categories of technologies that are animal-free, soil-free and carbon-free. They avoid the use of broiler, soil and oil. In doing so, they can most effectively reduce and eliminate abusive, accidental and aversive harms. Therefore, these technologies require much more research and development. You can support this R&D by funding ITIF for carbon-free clean energy, New Harvest, Cellular Agriculture Society or The Good Food Institute for animal-free cellular agriculture, and the Association for Vertical Farming for indoor vertical agriculture.

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3 reacties op Our three most harmful activities and how to minimize them

  1. Jan zegt:

    We could also use the oceans for production of energy, food and biomaterials – in my opinion we need more R&D to realise this as it could help realise two or three of the above mentioned technologies that can reduce most harm. Walter Dejonghe explains it here (in Dutch): http://designforeveryone.ugent.be/Aardbolschip/Een_aardbol_van_overvloed_v5.html What’s your opinion?

  2. Pingback: From Shiva to Dyson: a paradigm shift from soil-based low-tech to air-based high-tech food | Stijn Bruers, the rational ethicist

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