Thursday, August 28, 2014

Animal Suffering Motivates Behavior Change

I came across a unique vending machine idea in Istanbul that encourages folks to recycle and to feed and water free-living dogs and cats. People insert recyclables into the vending machine, and it dispenses food (click for more images and a video).  There is also a spout for people walking buy with water bottles to share their leftover water with thirsty nonhumans.   The inventor suggests that the purpose of the project is to instill a feeling of efficacy regarding pro-social behavior, but I see something else at work here.  It seems that these vending machines use images of other animals (both happy and sad pictures are used) in order to create behavior change.  This is promising, because it reaffirms what many of us are already aware of--humans care about other animals, want them to experience pleasure and safety, and want them to avoid suffering.

This project is also interesting because it creates an easy opportunity for passerby to act on their desire to behave pro-socially for other animals in their community in a meaningful and direct way.  One of the major problems with mainstream animal advocacy is that non-profits keep concerned individuals distanced from the social problem, encouraging them to participate only through donations and perhaps petition signing. Large non-profits like Vegan Outreach often turn volunteers away, asking for their money instead. I have argued that this approach is disempowering (meaning only those with financial means can participate, while a large variety of other useful skills and non-monetary contributions are devalued or ignored) and elitist (privileged folks from middle-class backgrounds with expensive college degrees get to make the decision on where the money goes and what solutions are appropriate).

I also think this type of approach widens the human-nonhuman divide by putting animal suffering "out there" "somewhere," hurting "some animals."  Indeed, social psychological research has shown that distance of this kind can impact a person's desire to behave pro-socially (for instance, more Americans donate and donate more to hurricane relief in the United States than they do to provide assistance to those suffering natural disasters in "far off lands" like Asia).  Hands-on social change efforts like vending machines keep people in direct contact with vulnerable persons in their community, instilling empathy, social responsibility, and the desire to act pro-socially.  Research shows that when people feel like they can "do" something and that their "something" will make a difference, they are much more likely to participate and to continue to participate in the future.

On the other hand . . . I'm not too keen on the survival of homeless dogs and cats relying only on the kindness of strangers.  Access to necessities like food and water should be basic rights afforded to urban-dwelling nonhumans.  Likewise, this type of activism represents only a band-aid effort at helping other animals, and does nothing to seriously address structural problems and ideologies of speciesism that create these problems in the first place.  I am also concerned that this form of "easy activism" can aggravate that problem.  True, many people do not engage social movements because of the cost or risk potentially involved, but some types of social problems cannot be solved with a quick fix.  Can we create a vending machine that encourages people to go vegan and to stay vegan?