Search the Site

Episode Transcript

Steve LEVITT: I’ve interviewed all kinds of people on this show, but so far I’ve avoided having guests who are activists. I have nothing against activists. It’s just that they often aren’t that much fun to talk to. They believe so deeply in their cause and they want you to also believe so deeply that there isn’t much room for thoughtful conversation. Well, today I’m breaking that rule because my guest, Bruce Friedrich, is a very unusual activist. He started his career at PETA, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, and his early exploits included streaking naked at Buckingham Palace in front of Queen Elizabeth and President Bush and utilizing large quantities of fake blood during New York Fashion Week. But over time, he came to believe that the best way to achieve social change was by using the power of markets. So in 2016, he founded the Good Food Institute, or GFI. It’s a nonprofit dedicated to the idea that through science we can create plant-based and cultivated proteins that will prove a better way of feeding the world than traditionally produced meat. The goal isn’t to convince people meat is bad, but rather to provide substitutes for traditional meat that are so tasty and so cheap that the demand for old style meat simply fades away. 

Welcome to People I (Mostly) Admire, with Steve Levitt.

LEVITT: I have a personal interest in what the Good Food Institute is doing because I love the taste of meat, but I also love animals and I’ve got a vegetarian wife and kids that are vegan. So consequently, I eat way less meat than I otherwise would. Now, my biggest concern about this interview is how will I keep it focused on what I see as the most important points, like the interesting economic issues around the negative externalities of meat production and the conflicts that arise when a huge, well-established meat industry faces possible collapse as a consequence of better technologies for producing protein. My guess is that I’m going to be coming at this topic from a perspective that Bruce Friedrich rarely encounters, and my fear is that I won’t be able to get him off his usual script, the speech he has to give over and over.

*       *      *

Steve LEVITT: You run the Good Food Institute, a nonprofit devoted to re-imagining protein, which effectively means finding alternatives to traditional meat. And I’m very interested in both the science and the economics of reimagining protein. But before we get into that, I think it’s worth taking some time to walk through the various reasons you believe people eat too much meat, things like environmental impact or animal cruelty — health reasons. I think this is important because on tricky topics like these, my friend Danny Kahneman has taught me the value of slowing down, because my tendency and I’m sure the tendency of others is to make quick judgments. “Of course, we eat too much meat,” or maybe, “It’s just a bunch of tree huggers exaggerating the problem,” or maybe, “There are a hundred other more pressing problems that we need to solve first.” And actually, I think those are probably three opinions in my own life I’ve expressed over this exact issue. So, on a podcast like this, we have the luxury of time and the luxury of thoughtful data-oriented listeners that are interested in knowing the facts. So how about we start by talking about the environmental impact of meat production? What can you tell us about that?

Bruce FRIEDRICH: GFI was set up to answer the questions: How do we feed almost 10 billion people by 2050 without lighting the planet on fire, essentially? And we specifically look, as you said, at re-imagining protein, and there is a recognition that there are significant external costs to the way that we produce protein today. And this just makes intuitive sense. If you think a little bit about it, the idea of growing lots and lots of crops to feed them to animals so that we can eat animals is vastly inefficient. So, according to the World Resources Institute, the most efficient animal at turning crops into meat is the chicken and it takes nine calories fed to a chicken to get one calorie back out in the form of that animal’s chicken meat.

LEVITT: Let me stop you there. Because the thing about that is while it’s true and it’s really inefficient, the people who are raising chickens are paying that price, right? So there’s a market for land and a market for feed. It’s not a good technology for creating meat, but it’s not an externality in the sense that economists think about it. It’s not a cost that’s outside the market, it’s in the price of chicken. So I think you wouldn’t necessarily say people are eating too much chicken because it’s priced in. Does that make any sense to you?

FRIEDRICH: Yeah, that makes tremendous sense. I think that the externality comes at the next stage in terms of the climate impact.

LEVITT: O.K.

FRIEDRICH: The first thing to say about the nine calories in to get one calorie back out is that it does mean nine times as much land, nine times as much water, nine times as many pesticides and herbicides. The external costs really start racking up when you think about the climate impact of growing so much more crops. When you think about the fact that you’re then shipping those crops to feed mills in gas-guzzling, pollution-spewing vehicles. You’re operating the feed mill. You’re shipping the feed to farms in gas-guzzling, pollution-spewing vehicles. You’re operating the farm. You’re shipping the animals to slaughterhouses. You’re operating the slaughterhouses. There’s multiple extra stages of fossil-fuel burning. It’s multiple extra stages of both polluting and energy-intensive factories. And when you add up all of that environmental impact, the United Nations says no matter what environmental issue you’re looking at, so water use, water pollution greenhouse gases, biodiversity loss, desertification — from the smallest and most local to the largest and most global — industrial animal agriculture is one of the top three causes. And on climate change specifically, about 14.5 percent of global climate change according to the United Nations, according to the F.A.O. economists, is attributable to industrial animal agriculture with all of the sort of existential risks that come alongside those costs.

LEVITT: O.K. and key to that is that these are externalities. So let me just define for our audience externalities in case they don’t know what I’m talking about. An externality is a cost that is outside of a market transaction. So, it is a cost that’s born by some innocent party. Someone who’s not voluntarily participating and consequently the market doesn’t take it into account. And so this is a form of market failure. So, I took the time before our interview just to do a little bit of research — probably not very well informed research, you might correct me on it — but I wanted to try to translate this climate change externality into a set of numbers that people can relate to. So, I tried to figure out what’s the implied cost of Greenhouse gas emissions that comes from making one quarter-pound hamburger. That’s like something I can think about pretty easily. So I just Googled “pounds of carbon dioxide equivalent per quarter-pound hamburger.” And I got eight pounds. Any idea if that’s a reasonable estimate?

FRIEDRICH: I don’t know what the precise equivalent is. It’s easy to vilify burgers, in particular, and we should, but if you look at chicken, even, according to an article in the journal Nature, chicken causes 40 times as much climate change per calorie of protein when compared to legumes like soy and peas. People have a vague sense about these things. People know that industrial farms are not pretty places. People are not big fans of slaughterhouses. And yet most consumers — food is “systems one’”thinking. This concept from Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking Fast and Slow. It’s fast, it’s instinctual, and it seems to dictate food choices. For most people what I’m going to eat boils down to “How does it taste?” and “Is it reasonably priced?” 

LEVITT: O.K., but let me come back to that, because I want to finish off the burger example. If the estimate I said before is right that eight pounds of carbon dioxide equivalents are released in making that quarter-pound hamburger. Then the other piece we need is we need to understand the social cost of carbon dioxide. And estimates are all over the place of the social cost of carbon dioxide. But I don’t think $200 per ton is a crazy number. So if we take that number, then $200 per ton is 10 cents per pound and it was eight pounds per quarter-pounder of carbon dioxide being released. So that’s 80 cents in carbon dioxide externalities associated with that burger. Now, I don’t know what a pound of ground beef costs — maybe it’s $1.25, maybe it’s $2.50. But we’re talking a big externality from greenhouse gases, something like, I don’t know, 30 or 40 or 50 percent of the market price. And that’s not the biggest externality that ever existed. But it’s pretty important, I think, and worth talking about. But I like that example myself because it clarified for me that you’re not just saying things that are directionally correct. You’re saying things that are empirically relevant and important in this dimension. 

FRIEDRICH: That’s fascinating. I had not calculated costs in that way. Two other externalities that we should probably engage with a little bit are antibiotic resistance as well as pandemic risk. Of all of the pharmaceutical production of antibiotics about 70 percent that are produced are fed to farm animals. That is leading to antibiotic resistance. The bacteria figure out how to become superbugs as they are dosed with these antibiotics. And then when human beings take antibiotics, because they get sick, the superbugs have figured out how to bypass the antibiotics. We have tens of thousands of people dying from antibiotic-resistant superbugs every single year. The former president of the World Health Organization, Dr. Margaret Chan, has said that if antibiotics stop working — and we are on a trajectory for them to stop working — that is the end of modern medicine. I mean, you think about the end of modern medicine, it certainly would be worth figuring out how one costs that. And I’m sure people have costed Covid-19, it’s trillions of dollars to the global economy, in the course of just barely over a year. And according to the U.N. environment program — in July they released a report — what’s going to be the cause of the next pandemic. And they said eating meat. And then intensification of agriculture is number two. So not a greater than 50 percent chance, but the most likely cause, and the idea of putting thousands of pigs or tens of thousands of chickens into sheds, this becomes an incubator for disease. And if that disease jumps the species barrier — boom. We could be looking at another Covid-19, but maybe even more transmissible, maybe even more deadly. 

LEVITT: I want to hit one more externality which is animal cruelty. So livestock live horrible lives, and I think we could go down the rabbit hole there, but just to give a flavor of the harsh existence of animals raised for meat — what do you think some of the most egregious features are of factory farming?

FRIEDRICH: Confinement agriculture. So, gestation crates for pigs, battery cages for hens. Chickens and pigs are animals in the same way that dogs and cats are animals, but where all 50 states have felony anti-cruelty laws, so it would be illegal to take a dog or a cat, take five of them and put them in a cage or take one of them and put them in a crate the size of their body and never let them out. For chickens and pigs and cattle, as long as it is standard agricultural practice, it is legal. But those are two basic ways that eggs and pork are created and it’s psychologically traumatizing as it would be to a dog or a cat. The animals’ muscles and bones waste away just like yours would if you were never able to move. The animals end up with all kinds of sores, similar to bed sores, all over their bodies. It’s a pretty harsh existence. 

LEVITT: So I know we can’t get inside the minds of animals completely, but is it the feeling of animal ethicists that if you asked these animals whether they would have preferred not to be born — do you think they would say yes or no? I’ve always wondered about that.

FRIEDRICH: I think for a battery hen or a gestation crate pig — it’s a life of unmitigated misery. So I would guess that most people would think not existing would be far preferable.

LEVITT: So it’s a challenge to quantify the costs of cruelty the way we did with greenhouse gases. But just to be clear, cruelty is an externality. The consumers and the farmers aren’t paying the price of the cruelty — the animals are. So it’s a factor that you absolutely want to put into any equation where you think about whether the market is getting it wrong with meat. I’m genuinely curious about how much more expensive would it be to produce animals in a much more ethical way?

FRIEDRICH: I think the discussion of external costs, Steve, is fascinating. Unless there is some real likelihood that the external costs will be factored in, I think politically there just isn’t. It seems extraordinarily unlikely that there would come a time where industrial animal agriculture would lose a political fight over incorporation of external costs into the price of their products. But what seems eminently plausible to me, and to GFI, is that industrial animal agriculture and governments would recognize that moving to making meat from plants and cultivating actual animal meat from cells is a quadruple win.

It’s a more efficient way of producing the precise meat that people want to consume. It can be done at a lower cost and the external costs of industrial meat production simply go away because you don’t have live animals so you have no pandemic risk. You don’t need antibiotics. The animal cruelty is gone and there is huge climate mitigation — not obviously no climate risk — but one of the things that Bill Gates talks about in his new book, which is true, is that if you concentrate the production in a factory, you then have the climate activist mantra “electrify everything.” The climate impact becomes almost completely the electricity. And that can be renewable. You also free up vast quantities of land because you require such a tiny fraction of the amount of land. Simply shifting over to these better production practices seems like it’s really the way to go. 

LEVITT: So let’s separate out the economist’s solution from the political solution. And so the economist’s solution to externalities is to try to incorporate those externalities into the price. And so we would make some calculations and one way to deal with the animal cruelty and to deal with the climate change impact and the antibiotics would be to put a really big tax on meat that incorporated the fact that when I decide to eat a steak, it does a lot of damage to a lot of other people. Now, politically, I think you’re totally right. That’s not viable, but I still think doing that calculation is useful because it helps me say, “Hey, wait a second, The Good Food Institute, they’re taking an approach that isn’t the typical approach an economist would take, but one that an economist would love,” which is, “Look, there’s another more efficient way to make meat that will beat meat at the market because it will be a perfect substitute for meat. But it will be cheaper. And the production of it will have zero externalities.” And that’s your win.

FRIEDRICH: In the same way that we might’ve been having this conversation 25 years ago, and you might have argued that photographs require analog film or you might’ve said that a phone requires a cord. We now have phones — they don’t require cords. We now have cameras — they don’t require analog film. So the idea is over time to divorce meat from the need for live animals. As well as all the external costs that come with that. 

LEVITT: So your goal at the Good Food Institute is essentially to use market forces to create a product, or maybe an alternative means of production, for making meat that will beat traditional agriculture at its own game. And in that sense, the only people who could complain about it are the people who are part of the old way of doing it that are going to lose out. And, of course, the people who lose out in the market always get upset when a new technology comes in, but you’re making essentially economic arguments that I don’t really see how anybody could really disagree with.

FRIEDRICH: Thanks very much. We should put you in charge. 

LEVITT: O.K. So there are three broad approaches with respect to the science of alternative meats. Could you talk a bit about each of these?

FRIEDRICH: Sure. So, what had happened with veggie burgers, veggie nuggets, veggie fish sticks up until the end of roughly 2008, 2009 — the way people thought about these products is that they are for vegetarians and flexitarians, they’re for people who don’t want the meat experience. And then Ethan Brown of Beyond Meat came along and he said, “Wait a minute. Meat is made of lipids, aminos, minerals, water — that is all meat is. Plants have those constituent parts, as well. I believe I can give consumers the precise meat experience, but I can do it with plants.” And the idea is just to hire scientists, take plants, and figure out how to replicate the entirety of the meat experience.

LEVITT: So tell me about cultivated meat. 

FRIEDRICH: With cultivated meat, you can cultivate the cells directly. So, you essentially take a biopsy from a chicken or a fish or whatever animal you want to grow, you bathe those cells in nutrients. You put those cells on a scaffold so that they can multiply and grow. And then you harvest the meat. It is a significantly more effective way of creating meat and it doesn’t require antibiotics, doesn’t grow feathers or skin or bones or anything that you don’t want from the animal. And you end up with literally the exact same meat. 

LEVITT: So is that a reality or is that science fiction?

FRIEDRICH: That is totally a reality. And I will say when I started the Good Food Institute a little over five years ago, I was pretty convinced that cultivated meat was going to stay a university project for quite a while. And Uma Valeti started a company called Memphis Meats, which has investments from both Tyson Foods and Cargill, two of the three biggest meat producers in the world, and they are cultivating meat. There are now 70, 80 companies cultivating meat and they can all do it at fairly high price points. There’s a company in Israel that I believe said that a chicken breast is now costing $7.50.

LEVITT: That’s not high at all. I thought you were going to say $7,000 for a chicken breast. 

FRIEDRICH: A few years ago, it was $7,000 for a chicken breast. And GFI we just commissioned a techno-economic analysis and we worked with a government agency in Singapore as well as more than 15 companies that are working on cultivated meat, and the analysis says just north of $2.50 per pound by 2030. That is for ground meat. So for whole cut meat to compete with fish sticks and chicken nuggets we have a little ways to go. 

LEVITT: O.K. And how about the third approach — fermentation? 

FRIEDRICH: Fermentation is very similar to cultivated meat, except that you are using, generally, fungi. So the company Quorn, which is not as well yet known in the United States, but is by far the dominant non-animal based meat. They’re basically growing fungi in sheets and it is just insanely efficient. And the products already are pretty close to resembling the mouth-feel of meat. So the hope and expectation is that hiring meat scientists and chemical engineers and food scientists, we may be able to replicate the meat experience even more quickly. 

LEVITT: There’s probably not a real reason to believe that when the market shakes out that all three of these approaches will necessarily have a role. But do you have a hunch as to which you think might be the most important 50 years from now or a hundred years from now? 

FRIEDRICH: It will be very interesting to see, Steve. And I think economics will kick in. We’re super optimistic that we can actually make products that taste the same or better. And that cost the same or less with the right resource inputs. But we haven’t done that with plant-based, cultivated, or fermentation yet. There does seem to be something about a lot of people that they want to eat actual animal meat. So I will be very surprised if cultivated meat is not a significant proportion, even if it costs a little bit more. My hunch is that plant-based and fermentation are likely to be less expensive. But then you get into the idea that all of this happens on a bit of a continuum. And the cultivated meat producers, I would guess, will all initially market their products as ingredients for plant-based and fermentation products. Basically, as flavor enhancers to really knock the taste, texture, consumer experience out of the park. 

LEVITT: It does seem reasonable that science could do better than evolution did — giving us a taste that’s way better than existing meat. Look at what the processed food industry has done in terms of creating really cheap, really tasty food. They might not be very good for you, but certainly the scientists have done a good job at giving people what they want in that dimension. It’s a much easier problem than the meat one. But I think that we should have high expectations, not just that we’re going to match the taste of meat, but that we’re going to go way beyond.

FRIEDRICH: Yeah. I mean that’s something that Pat Brown from Impossible Foods talks about quite a lot. The idea that industrial animal agriculture is constrained by their raw ingredient, which is the live animals. He points out both they can go beyond the taste and also do way better in terms of environmental impact. So the initial life cycle analyses are just super, super, promising — a fraction of the climate change, a fraction of the water use, a fraction of the land use. But they can get better and better. And they can do that on taste as well. The other thing that he points out is that we domesticated chickens, and pigs, and cattle, and sheep not because those were the animals who would be most delicious but because those were the easiest animals to domesticate. So on both the plant-based and the cultivated-meat side, I think we want to get to taste the same to get people excited about the products, especially as the price comes down. But, absolutely, we can from there tweak to make the products even healthier, to make them even more efficient, even better for the environment, and we can absolutely make them tastier as well.

You’re listening to People I (Mostly) Admire with Steve Levitt, and his conversation with alternative meat advocate Bruce Friedrich. After this short break, they’ll return to talk about government support and Bruce’s antics with PETA. 

*      *      *

LEVITT: So, the listener question today comes from Nathaniel, who asks, “Have you ever tried psychedelics or considered giving them a try?” And this is definitely a relevant question given two of my recent guests. One was Sam Harris, whose life was greatly changed by trying psychedelics when he was young, and also Carl Hart, who is an enormous proponent of psychedelics. So the answer is I’ve never tried psychedelics. And I’ll tell you why. The reason is because the only thing I have going for me is my brain, and I’m just nervous about something going wrong. And that’s probably an ill-placed concern. But in a world in which you don’t really know what you’re ingesting because things are illegal, I just think the cons outweigh the pros. Now, in a world like Carl Hart advocates — and if you haven’t listened to that episode, he’s in favor of complete legalization of all kinds of drugs — where you could get access to safe medical-grade psychedelics, I might be willing to give it a try. But honestly, I’m not that tempted. I’ll tell you something that will surprise you for sure, though. If I found out that I was terminally ill, one thing I might do is take up smoking cigarettes. Now, I’ve never really smoked in my life and I don’t know much about smoking, but I do know enough people who have said to me, “Oh my God, smoking is the best thing I’ve ever done.” And if I knew I were dying, I would smoke like crazy. And that’s very intriguing. So, if you see me chain smoking, you can definitely give me condolences because for sure it means I don’t have very long to live. Thank you for that question, Nathaniel. And send in your own questions to pima@freakonomics.com, and I might be able to give the answer over the air in the near future. 

*      *      *

LEVITT: It seems to me that the U.S. government is in a tough position here. We have these amazing new technologies being developed around meat, and there are probably huge social returns to R&D in this area, which suggests that the government should be generously supporting the research. But my hunch is that the politics of this, the power of big agriculture — it makes it impossible. So I’d like to get Bruce’s take on that issue and then I want to take the conversation in a completely different direction. Bruce has spent his life trying to change people’s minds. He’s also written a really nice book about it, and he’s shown he’s willing to change his own mind and radically shift course. So I want to hear his thoughts on all of that.

LEVITT: Do you have a sense of what total government expenditures are per year on R&D in alternative meat?

FRIEDRICH: It is vanishingly small. 

LEVITT: A hundred million or something like that?

FRIEDRICH: Oh, way less. In the United States plant-based and cultivated meat up until 2020, the sum total of spending was less than $500,000. 

LEVITT: Just to give a sense of how small that number is, my impression is at the U of C to run a single lab for a single scientist is $2 million. And so we were talking about the U.S. government’s entire budget for subsidizing this is one-fourth of one scientist.

FRIEDRICH: GFI has been working on lobbying to change that from the Capitol Hill side and then we have scientists working on it, reaching directly out to grant makers from the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, as well as the National Science Foundation. And then we actually work with scientists on their proposals, as well. U.C. Davis just got a $3.55 million grant from the National Science Foundation and GFI wrote a letter of support.

LEVITT: Just to draw the contrast between the really meager amount of funds that are being invested by governments in this kind of R&D is the amount of money that the U.S. government puts into subsidies of meat and dairy producers. And that turns out to be a distortion to the market, right? Because of that subsidy, if it’s being passed through to the consumers in the form of price reductions, that’s again, leading to too much consumption of meat relative to what the optimal would be from an economic perspective, but it also creates a big barrier to entry to alternatives to meat because the alternatives are not being subsidized. And it seems to me a real mistake to take an emerging technology and not only not let it be on a level playing field with the traditional technology, which is conventional farming, but also to make it fight this uphill battle. Because the old way gets billions in subsidies and the new way gets $3 million in research funds.

FRIEDRICH: Subsidies are probably not a great thing, but they’re probably not impacting the price in the same way that something like a carbon tax would, if that were politically tenable. They’re also not impacting to the same degree that some of the market programs that governments run do in terms of driving up demand and, consequently, cost. But at the end of the day, those things are pretty politically untouchable. GFI has focused on Singapore and Israel because they are technologically extremely advanced and they have governments that are particularly all in on food technology that will allow those countries to feed themselves. You look at Benjamin Netanyahu saying that Israel is going to be a leader on plant-based and cultivated meat. You look at Singapore being the first country to approve the sale from a regulatory vantage. Markets and science are global. So an innovation in Israel can bring down costs in rural China, bring down costs everywhere. That’s how supply and demand works. But as you rightly noted, governments should be incentivizing this in a big way. And our hope and expectation is that year after year as we go forward, more and more that will happen.

LEVITT: So a skeptic might say, well, why isn’t why isn’t the private sector enough? Beyond Meat spent $18 million on R&D in 2019, Impossible Foods probably spends more. Why do you think there’s a need for this more open-source investment in R&D?

FRIEDRICH: For the same reason that agriculture warrants billions of dollars in government support and renewable energy and other climate mitigation strategies warrant tens of billions of dollars in government support and global health initiatives warrant more than a hundred billion dollars even pre-Covid in government support. So, on the one side, addressing external costs specifically, governments should be ensuring that antibiotic resistance is mitigated. Government should be working to stop the next pandemic. And governments should be working to meet their obligations under the Paris Climate Agreement to keep climate change under two degrees Celsius. And none of that’s going to happen, if industrial animal meat consumption continues to go up and up and up. And then the flip side of that is the incentive of the economy and the idea that making meat from plants and cultivating meat from cells is likely to be the future of meat and the economies that prioritize that, they are going to be supplying meat for the world. The United States currently is a huge meat producer and a huge meat exporter, but just like China is crushing the United States on lithium ion batteries and just like China is crushing the United States on solar panel production, if we’re not careful other economies including China could prioritize biomimicking meat with plants, they could prioritize cultivated meat. And that could be where the jobs and the production go. We don’t want to let that happen.

LEVITT: You’re making a very compelling case for really big government investments in plant-based meat. The government is doing almost nothing. Is that because the government is stupid? It’s not like this emerged yesterday. Why is the U.S. government so far behind?

FRIEDRICH: Well, I think if you look at anything that governments have incentivized, there has been a voice saying to the government, “Hey, you need to look at this and do this.” And until the Good Food Institute came along, all of the activity in this was private sector. And it really does require the Good Food Institute to say to the government, “Hey, you have a role here. Similar to the role that you have incentivizing renewable energy, similar to the role that you have incentivizing drug development, similar to the role that the U.S.D.A. has taken since it was founded to promote U.S. agriculture.” And our hope and expectation is that the call for this is going to get bigger and bigger.

LEVITT: People listening to our discussion so far are likely to be quite surprised by how you spent the decade of your twenties. You sound so market-based and nerdy and traditional, but you were quite the radical in your day. 

FRIEDRICH: Oh, PETA was actually, I think, after my 20s. So, I worked at PETA. People are probably aware of the sort of Merry Prankster reputation that PETA has. I did a fair number of street theatery things in order to get attention to the way that animals were treated. Mostly focused on factory farms and slaughterhouses. 

LEVITT: Are you willing to relive with me some of your experiences at PETA? Because I just think it’s interesting listening to you now for people to see that you took a very different approach for many years, like say fashion week. You want to talk about fashion week?

FRIEDRICH: Ah, fashion week. So a group of us, in order to draw attention to how the fur industry treats animals, were involved in a protest of fashion week in New York City. We put red paint on our faces and hands. There was a designer who was using fur and I think on three or four different days, we were able to get in and take over the runway, the security was just not that great. 

LEVITT: And at least what I heard was you got arrested for doing it, right?

FRIEDRICH: Yeah. They actually held me overnight. I ended up being part of a class-action lawsuit against the New York City Police Department for basically arresting people and holding them overnight on misdemeanor charges and then dropping the charges, which is exactly what happened here. I can’t remember how much money I ended up getting, but I donated it to charity.

LEVITT: O.K. So how about Buckingham Palace?

FRIEDRICH: All of this — I would prefer not to talk about mostly because I think it detracts from the seriousness of what we’re focused on now. And I think a significant portion of people write people off, if they think “I wouldn’t do that.” 

LEVITT: What I love in this podcast is I love it when I can get to hear about how and why people changed. And I think that’s what’s so interesting in your case is you did extreme things and then you were like, “Look, they’re not working and there’s a better way.” And you completely changed. And to me that — if I were a listener, I’d say, “Wow, that gives even more credibility to what you’re doing now, because it’s thoughtful.” And I’m not trying to make this like a joke. I’m just trying to actually get inside the head of someone who’s transformed their own thinking.

FRIEDRICH: In 2000, I was running PETA’s European operations and streaked a meeting of George W. Bush and his daughters with the Queen at Buckingham Palace.

LEVITT: Streaked, you said the word “streaked,” like no clothes? 

FRIEDRICH: I did. Yeah. The Times of London reported that “It was not believed that the Queen was forced to avert her eyes.”

LEVITT: I love that. 

FRIEDRICH: This was the days when CNN headline news actually did run the same thing every 30 minutes. It was legit headline news. And my mom caught me streaking at Buckingham Palace on CNN headline news, my dad saw it on the CBS evening news. It was everywhere. I had “goveg.com” painted on my chest and my back. PETA did not have appropriate servers, so it kept crashing the PETA servers as people were actually going to goveg.com, which was obviously the goal of the antics.

LEVITT: I can’t think that there are many people who stick with the same problem, but change their approach more than you have. Moving from those kinds of antics to the market-based approaches you’re doing now — was there a moment of clarity where you thought, “Wow, I’m doing the wrong thing,” or how did that happen?

FRIEDRICH: I am still a big fan of trying to get attention for harms. I think very highly of the various things that, for example, Greenpeace does to try to get people paying attention to climate change or the things that PETA does to try to get people thinking about animal protection issues. My question in every situation, I really do try to apply a sort of “If I don’t do this, will it happen?” calculation. I didn’t leave PETA because I had issues with what PETA was doing or thought it was ineffective. It was really just excitement about the idea that we could do something so affirmative by getting scientists excited and policymakers excited and working with industry on transformation. I’m Roman Catholic and I, legitimately, believe that people are good and that people want to be on the right side of history and that people want their lives to be super meaningful in a way that gives back. And certainly, people who are executives at Tyson and Cargill, people who are in government, they want to fix things — they want to do good. The idea that we could help people with their vocations and help policymakers and food industry executives to do what they want to do, but in a slightly different and better way is just extraordinarily appealing to me.

LEVITT: So you wrote a book in the past that I found a really compelling discussion of persuasion and what it takes from the perspective of an activist to be persuasive, but I think the ideas were much more general. Could you talk a little bit just about your views on persuasion and what it takes to convince somebody to change their mind?

FRIEDRICH: So I co-authored this book with one of my co-workers now at the Good Food Institute his name is Matt Ball. And, basically, we attempted to learn the lessons of our decades of activism. Both things we had done wrong and things we had seen other people do wrong. There is the stereotype of the angry, judgemental activist and it is a stereotype because it is far too often true. So we were challenging readers to think about what is actually going to be most effective? How do you actually convince somebody that they should think in a different way? So we challenged people who might want to look countercultural to think about whether they might be more impactful if they looked a little bit more conventional, we challenged people who might want to yell at people to think about whether yelling is particularly effective in changing your mind. And basically we took a bunch of Malcolm Gladwell concepts and Daniel Kahneman concepts as well. Sort of basic principles of what works and what doesn’t work in helping people to change their minds. And probably the biggest one which has just been transformational for me in every aspect of my life is the Socratic method and challenging myself when somebody asks me a question about something that has to do with ethics not to launch into a monologue, but to actually engage in a dialogue and to ask people “What do you think about that?” And basically to help them convince themselves rather than my trying to beat truth into them.

LEVITT: A quote from your book — it says, “To succeed in freeing people, to express their compassion, to open their hearts and minds, our interactions must be rooted in empathy and understanding, working with an individual’s motivations, fears, desires, and shortcomings, instead of approaching with a fighting mindset.” I really liked that. It goes against human instinct to approach adversaries with compassion. But I suspect you’re right — that’s the way to turn an adversary into a friend.

FRIEDRICH: I ran a Catholic worker house for about six years in inner city, Washington, D.C., and the Catholic worker is steeped in Matthew 25, the works of mercy. So, feed the hungry, house the homeless, clothe the naked, visit the sick and imprisoned. And the one-time in the gospels that Jesus talks about what salvation looks like, that is it. It’s not, “What did you say you believed?” It’s not, “Did you go to mass?” It’s “How did you lead your life and were you compassionate to other people?” So, there’s the golden rule and then there’s the platinum rule and the platinum rule is “do unto others as they would be done unto.” So it’s the golden rule, but with a bit more self-awareness that other people may not want exactly what you want. But the Catholic worker is steeped in the teachings of Dr. King, the teachings of Gandhi, and the teachings of a woman named Dorothy Day who founded the Catholic Worker movement and she was just all about compassion, all about, “Treat everybody as though they were Jesus,” essentially. And there’s no such thing as not deserving it.

LEVITT: Bruce Friedrich’s book is called The Animal Activists’ Handbook: Maximizing Our Positive Impact in Today’s World. And I have to say, I found the lessons in the book to be much more broadly applicable than the title would suggest. It’s really interesting to me that in two interviews I’ve done recently, one with Robert Sapolsky and this one with Bruce Friedrich, two very different people with completely different training and life experiences, they’ve ended our discussions in the exact same spot, arguing that there’s no such thing as a person being undeserving. Now, that’s not a value or belief that I’ve ever held personally. I’ve always thought we should hold people accountable for their choices, that people who make bad choices should be punished and people who make good choices should be rewarded. But I have to say, both Robert and Bruce, they make their point really persuasively. And while I’m not all the way there yet, they’re definitely providing a serious challenge to the way I view the world. 

*      *      *

People I (Mostly) Admire is part of the Freakonomics Radio Network, which also includes Freakonomics Radio, No Stupid Questions, and Sudhir Breaks the Internet. This show is produced by Freakonomics Radio and Stitcher. Morgan Levey is our producer and Dan Dzula is the engineer; our staff also includes Alison Craiglow, Greg Rippin, Joel Meyer, Tricia Bobeda, Mark McClusky, Zack Lapinski, Mary Diduch, Brent Katz, Rebecca Lee Douglas, Emma Tyrrell, Lyric Bowditch, Jasmin Klinger, and Jacob Clemente. All of the music you heard on this show was composed by Luis Guerra. To listen ad-free, subscribe to Stitcher Premium. We can be reached at pima@freakonomics.com. Thanks for listening.

LEVITT: I just think it involved throwing some red paint that looked like blood on some models — is what I’ve heard. 

FRIEDRICH: That is not one that I expected you to ask about. 

Read full Transcript

Comments