Not all behavior change is created equally.
Let’s say you have $1,000.
You could take that $1,000 and stash it under your bed for the next couple decades. Each passing year, everything in the world would get slightly more expensive—inflation would be at work, slowly increasing the prices of everything. Your $1,000 would deteriorate in value, losing purchasing power.
Or, you could invest that $1,000 in a simple savings account, something with a very low interest rate. Over time, you would slowly accrue interest—not a ton of interest, but about enough to counteract inflation. This would be a bit smarter than stashing it under your bed, and your $1,000 would retain about the same amount of value that you started with.
But what if you were to take that $1,000 and actually invest it in something?
A first obvious and pretty standard option is investing it in a diversified stock and bond portfolio with a certain risk profile, something that more or less guarantees decent returns without too great a risk of losing your money. (Nevermind all those stock market crashes.) Your money would grow some small percentage each year, but that growth compounded over a couple of decades would yield significant growth. In fact, given decent returns you could expect your money to double in about a decade, maybe less.
Side note: I’m not a financial advisor.
You could just as easily invest in a company you believed in, or invest in your own project. Investing $1,000 into creating your own vegan waffle business could yield thousands of dollars and a solid company if you put in the time and effort.
However you do it, these investments (if made wisely) can greatly increase the value of that original $1,000, transforming it into something much bigger than what you started with.
Your money can be self-replicating—money can make more money.
(One important note here is the role of time. Legitimate investments often take many years to pay off in significant ways. This is also true for investments in yourself, investments in your organization, and investments in the movement.)
The Same with Vegans
As it is with money, so it is with vegans.
We’re going to be talking about “creating vegans” here, but you could think of it as empowering people, creating activists, helping people become animal advocates, etc. Whatever floats your boat.
The main question is: how can you make your impact compounding, or self-replicating?
The “Recidivism” Scenario
We can create vegans who eventually go back to eating animals. This is deteriorating impact. It’s like a wooden fence that rots in the weather over time, or that money you stashed under your bed. In this situation, we’re losing value over time, undoing previous work.
The “Lonely Vegan” Scenario
We could also create vegans who stay vegan, such as by focusing on reducing the recidivism rate. This is flat impact. It’s like a wooden fence that we coat with weather protectant wood stain, so that it stays pretty much the same for years—or like the money we invest in a simple savings account, gaining a little bit of interest each year.
The “Vegans Creating Vegans” Scenario
Or, we can create vegans who create other vegans. This is compounding impact. It’s like investing money in developing a wooden fence that creates other wooden fences, or a wooden fence that starts a wooden fence company for you and makes you thousands of dollars in profits.
Return on Investment
Let’s say we put some finite amount of energy into creating new vegans.
What kinds of returns do we get in each of these scenarios?
(Feel free to skip this section and head straight to “Examples” if you’re not as interested in quantified impact speculation. For those who are interested, stick around.)
“Recidivism” Return on Investment
Say we work for some length of time on getting people to go vegan, maybe a decade. Maybe we get 10 new people to go vegan each year because of our work.
But, because of recidivism, maybe all 10 of those people go back to eating animals the very next year. After a decade of work, we’ve gotten 100 people to go vegan for a short length of time, but then everything goes back to the way it was before.
Our return on investment in this scenario is very small, and finite. As soon as we stop doing work, our impact stops. Everything goes back to normal and it’s almost like nothing ever happened.
If we say each person in the US is responsible for the deaths of approximately 300 animals due to food (including fish, bycatch, etc.), then that’s 300*100=30,000 animals spared.
Obviously, this doesn’t sound like a very good way to create lasting change for trillions of animals globally.
“Lonely Vegan” Return on Investment
Let’s assume we put in the same amount of work as last time, with the same results—we work for a decade, influencing 10 people a year to change their behavior to help animals—so we still end up with 100 people who have gone vegan thanks to our influence.
But in this scenario, all of those people stay vegan indefinitely. After you stop working, there are still 100 people out in the world choosing to not eat animals. They’re not influencing other people, but they’re still responsible for sparing those animals from being brought into the system.
If we still assume 300 animals spared per year per vegan, then each year these 100 people keep another 30,000 animals from being born, raised, and killed. After ten years, that’s 300,000 animals. After thirty years, it’s almost a million. Your return on investment keeps growing year after year while all of those people are still alive.
Your impact in this scenario lives on even after you stop doing work, which is much better than the first scenario.
But there’s a much better scenario, if we can create it…
“Vegans Creating Vegans” Return on Investment
This is the compound interest scenario, the holy grail of what we want to accomplish.
Imagine that whenever we influenced someone to go vegan, they then started influencing other people to go vegan. And imagine that those new people influenced others… and so on.
Let’s say you spend a decade getting 100 people to go vegan, then you stop working—you retire from activism.
What happens now?
Well, those 100 people are staying vegan, just like in the last scenario. So their personal impact keeps growing.
But now, they’re also constantly influencing others. Let’s say instead of influencing 10 people a year like you do, they only influence 1 person per year.
The year after you stop working, your original 100 influence another 100 to go vegan. The next year is another 100. Then another 100.
Your original impact essentially multiplies itself every year, making your original investment way more impactful.
And if we further assume that every new vegan is out there influencing others…
Year 1: 100
Year 2: 100 + 100
Year 3: (100 + 100) + (100 + 100)
Year 4: ((100 + 100) + (100 + 100)) + ((100 + 100) + (100 + 100))…
Instead of adding on 100 each year, we’re now doubling the number of vegans each year. Assuming this trend were to hold true for twenty years, you would be personally responsible for kicking off a chain of events that led to 100,000,000 new vegans, which would reduce the total number of animals killed each year for food by 1.3%.
Not bad for one person putting in ten years of work.
While this is obviously a contrived example, this is the basic power of compounding, self-replicating effects.
How to Create Compounding Effects
The real question is, how can we set up our work in a way where we maximize the chances of achieving these kinds of compounding effects?
No matter the type of work we’re doing, there are ways we can increase these odds.
Teach People to Teach
Currently, a lot of our approach to individual outreach and volunteer engagement looks like “let’s get this person to do this one specific thing.” That specific thing might be changing their diet, or leafleting, or protesting. But our goal is usually measured in terms of how many people we’ve gotten to do that thing.
The best case scenario for this type of work is “flat impact”, although “recidivism” is more likely in most cases. Many people will stop doing the thing we want them to do, like go vegan. Out of those who continue doing it, very few will make the leap to the next step—teaching others to do what they do.
“Teaching people to teach” is exactly how we can focus our efforts to have a bigger impact.
What does this look like?
First, we could experiment with setting the bar higher to begin. Instead of just giving people information on how they can personally change their attitudes on behavior, we can also emphasize how important it is to share what they’ve learned. If we start the conversation by focusing on how the person can begin impacting others, it could make it easier for them to make the behavior change. (For example, if they start by trying to consider how they could share this information with their friends and family, then it might be a given that they already somewhat agree with it and that they’re going to change their own behavior.)
Second, if we think that the majority of people wouldn’t like the approach stated above, we could still invest more of our time and energy in identifying those who would be interested in helping out. When we notice someone who is particularly interested, we can spend more time talking with them. We could figure out ways to connect with people who are always coming back to our websites or social media pages. We could create new programs just to find those people and help them get active and stay active.
Technology is an amazing tool that can help us. We could hold “digital conferences” on any topics we want, essentially for free, using video call / webinar technology. We can build applications and websites that help people connect and learn. Even old means of communicating with large groups of people like phone trees can be recreated, improved, and tested using modern digital technology.
And whenever we find ourselves helping someone, we can ask “how can they now help others?” And so on.
Activists training activists, training activists, training activists…
Teach and Train Ourselves
If your current ability is at X and you never focus on getting better, then you’ll perform at X this year and next year. Ten years from now, you’ll still be at X—you might have even decayed to something less, like 0.7X. Best case scenario, maybe you’re at 1.5X or 2X, if you’ve picked up some new techniques here or there.
However, if you focus on constant improvement then you unlock the power of compounding effects. 1% improvement every day for a year takes X to 37X. 1% improvement every day for a decade takes you from X to 5,929,000,000,000,000X. That multiplier is a number so high you and I don’t even know the word for it.
Self-improvement and constant learning aren’t a nice-to-have. They’re essential for anyone who wants to make a difference in the world.
Create Organizations and Institutions
As individuals, our time on this earth is very limited. However, there are ways that we can “cheat death” and extend our own personal impact far into the future. One of those ways is through the establishment of institutions.
If you set up an institution with a framework for operating and a means of sustaining itself, it can go on to become its own self-replicating organism. One example of this is organizations like Mercy For Animals or Vegan Outreach. These groups are legal entities, there’s an official board of directors helping to guide the direction of the organization, and there are structures in place that more-or-less ensure that funding will come in, people will get hired, etc.
The official structure provides stability, and the momentum invested in the organization over the course of a decade or more creates an inertia that can carry it forward into the future. In our movement, The Vegan Society is one of the longest lasting entities—founded in 1944 and continuing to operate to this day.
There’s a lot more work to be done in this area.
Keep this question in mind: how can I create compounding, self-replicating impact with the work I put in? If I were to stop working right now, would my impact for animals deteriorate, stay stagnate, or keep growing? How could I make it build on itself and grow even faster?
None of us lives forever. How are you going to make sure your impact for animals lives on after you’re gone?
(If you want more reading somewhat related to this, check out Nassim Taleb’s article called “The Most Intolerant Wins: The Dictatorship of the Small Minority”. The discussion about the propagation of religions based on the rules of the religion is very relevant.)
The Animal Movement Project (AMP) is a platform dedicated to building the movement for animals.
We share thoughts and ideas that can take the movement for animals from x to 10x. Our focus is predominantly on animals exploited for food since they account for more than 99% of the animals exploited by humans. The topics covered are often about ways to tie the pieces of the movement together or to fill in the gaps. We focus on connecting people, ideas, and resources to each other.