Know Your Boundaries

Nothing special here, just a “keep this in mind”…

Oftentimes misunderstandings arise from the way something is framed. One framing problem involves setting the boundary conditions for the investigation or discussion.

The economics concept of externalities is a well-known boundary conditions problem. An externality is a cost (or benefit) caused by one party, but borne by another. A common example is pollution. An unregulated firm that pollutes the water does not incur the costs associated with that pollution. Downstream users bear the cost.

In real life it can get very tricky. One of the most vexing problems in greenhouse gas accounting is leakage. “Leakage is the unanticipated decrease or increase in
greenhouse gas benefits outside of a project’s accounting boundary resulting from the
project’s activities.” Sounds simple, but in practice it can be very difficult. Let’s say you set up a program to save a forest from logging. Does another forest elsewhere on the planet get chopped down instead? What is your net benefit?

But instead of climate change, let’s talk about an emotionally charged topic. Let’s talk about no kill shelters.

Strict no kill animal shelters will not euthanize pets in their care. Thus, they can point to their success in finding homes for animals while killing none. This, in turn may improve their popularity among pet owners. However, the important question is whether the existence of no kill shelters results in fewer pet deaths overall.

Does the existence of no kill shelters result in fewer animals needing shelters in the first place? This seems implausible. Shelter demand is driven by stray reproduction and people losing or giving up their pets. If anything, the no kill shelter may marginally increase the latter activity.

Does the existence of no kill shelters result in more adoptions? Equivalently, does pet ownership (guardianship) increase due to no kill shelters? Perhaps the publicity and impression of no kill shelters persuades people who would otherwise not adopt to adopt. But it’s also likely that people who adopt from no kill shelters would have adopted anyway.

So if the same number of animals need shelters and the same number find homes, what has been accomplished? Nothing that an equivalent increase in the capacity (shelter space and budget including marketing) of existing shelters would not have done.

In fact, by narrowly framing the discussion around their own operations, strict no kill advocates may do more harm than good by giving caring people the impression they are doing good. If a false sense of accomplishment keeps people from pursing more successful measures then there may be a net negative. Alternatively, the attractiveness of no kill shelters may induce higher donations such that the overall shelter system increases capacity and capability.

PETA seems skeptical. (Just typing P E T A makes me want a burger.)

This is great cocktail party conversation by the way.

The lesson is simple but easily neglected: Know your boundaries. Be clear about what you’re including and what you are excluding. You can do better analysis and avoid misunderstandings.

Caveat: In emotionally charged situations attempts to resolve misunderstandings by clarifying boundary conditions probably has a lower chance of succeeding.

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