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  • Writer's pictureChristopher Sebastian

Vegans, Race & the Cult of Effective Altruism

Updated: Nov 18, 2022

Sam Bankman-Fried. Photo courtesy: FTX/Reuters
Sam Bankman-Fried. Photo courtesy: FTX/Reuters

It's been a bad week for tech bros. Mark Zuckerburg has lost $100 billion on the Metaverse. Elon Musk set fire to Twitter. And now, cryptocurrency exchange FTX has collapsed, tanking the $17 billion fortune of company founder Sam Bankman-Fried. Why is Bankman-Fried important? Because he is a major funder of Effective Altruism.

Effective Altruism (or EA) is a philosophical movement favored by tech billionaires that advocates "using evidence and reason” to figure out how to do the “most good.” And because Bankman-Fried’s EA cash floats a significant portion of the vegan nonprofit space, it’s become the guiding principle and primary direction within the animal rights movement.

But as Olúfẹ́mi O Táíwò and Joshua Stein wrote for The Guardian, EA provides actors like Bankman-Fried cover by using philanthropy to launder their reputations, while leaving 'reason and evidence' at the door, saying, “Effective altruism organizations donate hills of cash to research that excites their donors, rather than focus on proven, efficient solutions to imminent needs.”

Writing for The New York Times, Nicholas Kulish also sums up one of EA's most glaring problems:

Benjamin Soskis, senior research associate in the Center on Nonprofits and Philanthropy at the Urban Institute, said that the issues raised by Mr. Bankman-Fried’s reversal of fortune acted as a “distorted fun-house mirror of a lot of the problems with contemporary philanthropy,” in which very young donors control increasingly enormous fortunes.
“They gain legitimation from their status as philanthropists, and there’s a huge amount of incentive to allow them to call the shots and gain prominence as long as the money is flowing."

But what Soskis said in his critique is far from new. It’s what I and others have been pointing out literally for YEARS.

In fact, I wrote an essay called "Anti-Blackness and the Effective Altruist" for the anthology The Good it Promises, The Harm it Does: Critical Essays on Effective Altruism, which will be published by Oxford University Press in January 2023.

An excerpt from my essay:

The EA movement also is not just White in terms of physical representation. Normative Whiteness is cooked into the ideological foundation because it focuses on maximizing the effectiveness of donors’ resources, which entrenches power in the hands of donors and further reinforces a power imbalance.
This contributes to donor-defined effectiveness and reduces the experiences, preferences, and views of EA recipients. The sheer homogeneity of donors, their approaches and strategies that are deemed to be most “effective,” merely reflects their own highly subjective definition of “good.” This is White benevolence and White paternalism at their finest.

In practical terms, if you’ve noticed that nonprofits have pursued strategies that de-radicalize and commodify veganism by presenting it as an apolitical and toothless movement, that’s intentional.

Pushing "alternative proteins" as a primary strategy and hyper-focusing on consumer veganism is an extension of green capitalism, which coincidentally concentrates money and influence in the hands of billionaires who already have outsized influence on the food system.

Effective Altruism doesn't objectively focus on evidence and reason. It defines objectivity through the prism of billionaires and ignores reason and empirical evidence that conflicts with their bottom lines.

I feel bad for organizations who may now be scrambling to find more financial resources if their awards dry up as a result of the current tech boom implosion. But I’m also hopeful for the grassroots activists who were sidelined and silenced because they were deemed too revolutionary by standing unapologetically for animal and human liberation instead of selling products or trying not to upset racists.

And if you’d like to pre-order the book, click this link. I’m not being humble when I say mine isn’t the best essay in there. Not even top 5. Edited by Carol J. Adams, Alice Crary, and Lori Gruen. Please check it out.

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