Factory farming in a cosmic future

By Luke Dawes @ 2024-02-10T12:14 (+20)

Introduction

Humanity may inadvertently propagate animal suffering caused by factory farming when we establish settlements in space because we are too confident in futures free of animal suffering. This could pose a significant suffering risk (or s-risk).  In this post, I aim to show that such confidence is misguided. I start by explaining why factory farming in space is (probably) worth serious moral consideration. I then present four common reasons for believing that humanity’s future in space will likely be cruelty-free, and critique them as best I can. I conclude, very tentatively, that a future full of factory farming is perfectly plausible, and currently our default trajectory. 

Key assumptions

I have made three assumptions which I do not defend in any detail here, and which I have taken for granted as plausible:

  1. We are sufficiently concerned with animal welfare overall that a graphic, gratuitous description of just how bad factory farming in space could be is unnecessary here. 
  2. Humans could one day settle permanently in space, and we will do so in recognisably human form (i.e. not as digital minds, and not ‘post-human’ to the point of no longer requiring food).
  3. Tens of thousands of people (at least) would need to be living beyond Earth for factory-farming in space to be a realistic development. I don’t know how long this could take, and I do not attempt a forecast here, but this might take the form of multiple Earth-orbital stations and semi-permanent stations on the Moon with rotating populations, for instance, or even permanent settlements further afield on or around Mars.

Epistemic status and caveats

I am about 75% certain that factory farms in space will eventually be technically and commercially feasible, if humans settle in space. If this happens, it will probably happen too fast for most interventions to interrupt it, and there will be new, strong incentives for factory farming to continue indefinitely.

Why might this matter?

Importance

Yip Fai Tse has estimated that in a future where humans settle throughout the Solar System, there could be as many as a thousand trillion trillion vertebrates farmed and slaughtered for human consumption. This doesn’t even cover the insects, crustaceans and molluscs (and many more animals) we may farm in future. He wrote that the spread of factory farming into space might be one of the most important considerations for future animal welfare, and notes that work is already being done on feeding humans in space by farming fish and insects.

There may also be normative reasons to take more seriously the possibility of factory farming in space. In Suffering-Focused Ethics, Magnus Vinding argues that happiness and suffering are deeply asymmetrical, rather than arbitrary ends of a well-being scale that can be algebraically balanced or outweighed. This implies that while we may still have good reasons to focus predominantly on the wellbeing of future people (and future digital minds), we are not at all exempt from giving due consideration to animals in the meantime. 

Finally, as Fai notes, if animal welfare matters less in the longterm because we can expect there to be many, many digital minds, we should expect human welfare to matter less, too. This is a deeply complex subject but it should encourage us at the very least to find a stake in this argument – how much can we expect to matter morally, if we’re sure that this won’t? 

Neglectedness

The issue seems neglected within EA, however, and where it is considered, it is quickly discounted. 80,000 Hours have estimated that “the scale of the problem of factory farming itself…is small compared to the scale of issues affecting future generations. This is especially true if you think that factory farming is likely to end within a few decades or centuries.” Their exploratory piece does not suggest reasons to think that factory farming may soon end, and does not explore the possibility of factory farming in space. In addition, EA user alene described the scepticism they encountered from some effective altruists regarding the future of farmed animal suffering, and the confidence that it won’t be a risk worth addressing

I address tractability in the Conclusion.

Reasons for optimism, and rebuttals

In this section, I will describe and critique four reasons for optimism that humanity’s future in space will be cruelty-free. There are likely many more reasons for optimism than I describe here, and many more valid critiques thereof, but I hope merely to show that we probably haven’t considered them enough overall rather than that there aren’t good reasons. 

1. Earth can supply meat products to low-Earth orbit, the Moon and even Mars long-term

Reasons for optimism: Pre-deployed food caches and uncrewed resupply missions are possible, in principle, for an enduring human presence on Mars. We can currently land on the Red Planet within a few kilometres of a chosen target, which a rover could reach without much difficulty if needed, and well-packaged dehydrated food could plausibly remain edible for 5-7 years after launch. We could probably also send components for a small indoor farm for hardy, high-caloric vegetables (e.g. potatoes, à la The Martian).

Rebuttals:

2. Lab-grown meats and alternative proteins will render factory farming obsolete

Reasons for optimism: Lab-grown meat is a fast-growing industry that has seen a great deal of progress over the last decade. It is often portrayed as the closest thing to a silver bullet for ending factory farming, and limiting the long-term effects of intensive animal agriculture on the environment.

Rebuttals:

3. Transformative AI will render factory farming in space unnecessary

Reasons for optimism: A comprehensive assessment of the problems AI could solve for us is beyond the scope of this post, but the opportunities and risks of this technology are well attested elsewhere. In short, transformative AI could far outstrip humans in the quality and quantity of technological advancement and economic growth it could produce, including innovations in biotechnology and engineering that make factory farming in space undesirable and/or unnecessary.

Rebuttals:

4. Norms will change in favour of meat-free diets and better treatment of nonhuman animals 

Reasons for optimism: We might welcome news that vegetarian and vegan dietary habits are on the rise (Google reported huge increases in the search term "vegan restaurants near me" in 2019), but these trends are not global, nor one-way: Statista reported in late 2022 that vegan diets declined in India between 2018 and 2022, while Mexico and Spain saw very little change at all. 

Why I might be wrong

There are five main ways in which I think I could be wrong about factory farming in space being a worthy concern. I provide a brief response for each. 

  1. We may not live long enough to settle in outer space at all, due to nuclear war, malevolent AI or some other existential catastrophe. This is true, strictly speaking, but it doesn’t seem like a strong discouragement from taking factory farming in space more seriously. Nobody who works to reduce pandemic risk argues against doing so given the risk of nuclear war, for example, and other important work on the alleviation of absolute poverty and animal welfare continues despite these ongoing existential risks. 
  2. We may make a political decision to remain on Earth long-term, perhaps to reflect more carefully on the allocation of resources in space, or to heal the planet we come from before we try to settle elsewhere in the cosmos. This is possible, given the malleability of norms described above. Spacefaring states are already competing for access to low-Earth orbit and beyond, however, and the welfare of nonhuman animals should ideally form part of any discussion of how to govern ourselves in space.
  3. We may convert ourselves to a purely digital form, in which we are eternal, editable, replicable, transferable and free of the suffering imposed by (and on) organic bodies. Given the uncertainty of how transformative AI might unfold, this may be unavailable and/or undesirable for many people. It also raises more complex questions about a future in which humans, nonhuman animals and digital minds share the cosmos.
  4. We discover strong normative reasons to believe that humans and nonhuman animals are not worthy of the same moral consideration as ‘super-patients’ or ‘super-beneficiaries’, e.g. digital minds. I don’t yet take a strong view here, but see Nick Bostrom and Carl Schuman (p. 14) for how this wouldn’t necessarily mean bad lives for humans and nonhuman animals. Even in a universe where digital minds have a much, much larger claim on the proportion of resources in the cosmos, we might still have good reasons to use our smaller absolute share to prevent suffering for nonhuman animals. 

Conclusion

I have tried to carefully critique four common reasons for optimism in a human-led future in space, a future in which nonhuman animals no longer suffer in factory farms. My current best guess is that Earth probably cannot reliably supply farflung human settlements in space, and that even with the opportunities provided by transformative AI, we are at least marginally more likely to enable a future full of orbital and extraterrestrial factory farms, as one without. 

Tractability, and tentative next steps

While I am convinced that this issue is more important than widely believed and significantly neglected, I am deeply uncertain of how tractable it is. I don’t know how or when we might build factory farms in orbit and beyond, and I don’t know when or how quickly we might have to transition from a long, thoughtful exploration of this problem to developing useful interventions.

It may be too early to recommend specific actions. The s-risk posed by factory farming in space is clearly a strange niche issue for most people, and it would be counterproductive to invite further scepticism, ridicule or effective resistance from relevant industries by proposing premature interventions. That said, I would suggest the following questions that readers may wish to consider, and even try to address, as we try to understand how big this problem might be, and whether we should make it a priority.    

Acknowledgements

I have largely relied on the work of Yip Fai Tse here, but my thinking has also been strongly influenced by Magnus Vinding, Tobias Baumann, Nick Bostrom, Everett C. Dolman, Tim Marshall, Will Macaskill, Toby Ord and Peter Singer, and probably others. Errors, in fact or in reasoning, are of course my own.


alene @ 2024-02-14T22:09 (+2)

Thank you for writing this, Luke!!!

Luke Dawes @ 2024-02-15T10:07 (+1)

You're welcome, thanks for taking the time to read it! 

SummaryBot @ 2024-02-12T12:54 (+2)

Executive summary: Factory farming may expand into space as humans settle other worlds, posing a major but neglected animal welfare concern.

Key points:

  1. Settling space could enable trillion trillion vertebrates to be factory farmed, making this a huge animal welfare issue.
  2. Common reasons for optimism about a cruelty-free space future are critiqued, including Earth resupply, lab meat, transformative AI, and changing norms.
  3. Timelines are deeply uncertain but space factory farms could emerge once tens of thousands of people live off-Earth.
  4. Next steps include better understanding engineering needs for space factory farms, intersections with terraforming, and tractability of interventions.
  5. We may be unable to supply meat to settlements across the solar system without expanding factory farming on Earth.
  6. Even if not a near-term issue, the scale warrants more attention on factory farming possibly expanding into space.

 

 

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