One of the main characters of the TV series The Good Place is Chidi Anagonye, a brilliant yet perennially indecisive moral philosopher. Chidi is full of good intentions but – as the saying goes – that’s what the road to hell is paved with.
Chidi’s extensive knowledge of ethical matters forces him to overthink everything, making him incapable of making decisions. As a result, despite his constant efforts to help others, Chidi doesn’t cause them anything but suffering and pain.
But, what if we could find a way to leverage our knowledge of all the world’s problems effectively? After all, we’ve never had so much information about the challenges we’re facing and how we could solve them.
That’s what the Effective Altruism movement is all about. Starting in the late 2000s by organizations like Giving What We Can and Givewell, Effective Altruism is a philosophy and social movement using evidence and reason to determine the most effective ways to do good and make the world a better place.
Think of a super-decisive Chidi that always knows what to do and you have a good example of a typical EA activist. (Aside from the fact that EA is a white-dominated movement; more on this later.)
What problems we should tackle first
One of EA’s most intriguing – and to a certain extent, most controversial – aspects is that it doesn’t just tell you what you should do if you want to solve a certain problem. It also tells you which problems you ought to solve first in order to leave this world a little bit better than you found it. For example, banning straws is not that important.
There’s a whole area of research focusing on cause prioritization and even an EA-inspired institute at the University of Oxford dedicated to it.
In a nutshell, EA suggests that good causes that should be prioritized usually have three characteristics:
Factoring in these aspects, EA activists usually come to the conclusion that the three most-pressing issues for humanity are: extreme poverty, animal suffering, and what they call “long-term future.” That’s basically the minimization of global catastrophic risks, also known as existential risks (yes, like reaching singularity).
How we can solve these problems
When it comes to helping others, the creed is usually that there’s no better way of getting involved than dedicating our own professional lives to it. After all, who’s more altruistic than a doctor that gives up a six-figure salary to run a charitable hospital in a low-income country?
However, EA refuses – or, at least, complicates – this scenario. In his book Doing Good Better (that is sort of EA’s gospel), British philosopher William MacAskill (one of the most prominent EA evangelists), claims that certain doctors (of course, it all depends on how good these hypothetical doctors are, what their specialization is, and who would fulfill their roles if they weren’t doing what they’re doing) might do a greater good if – instead of working for a charitable organization – they’d worked for a Western hospital donating 10 percent of their fat salaries to highly effective organizations.
MacAskill calls this “earning to give” and a few years ago it was one of the most prominent EA’s fads. “Earning to give” does sound like an opportunistic way of doing good and it’s not surprising that the concept has been particularly well-received by techies. After all, what’s more appealing for a startup founder than hearing that the way they can do the most good is by pursuing their own personal interests?
At the same time, there’s robust evidence that earning to give can truly be an extraordinarily effective way of doing good.
Anyway, as I said, EA complicates, rather than refuses the idea that dedicating your own career to a good cause is the best way to save the world. There are cases in which becoming a doctor in a low-income country is the most effective way of doing good.
To help grad students, starters, and all professionals in general in their career choices, there’s an EA organization called 80,000 hours whose name refers to the rough amount of hours a person spends working over a lifetime. In this age of bullshit occupations in which the expression “meaningful job” is often reduced to a LinkedIn buzzword, an organization like 80,000 hours provides much-welcomed resources to help people lead high-impact careers.
For example, scientific research is a potentially high-impact career choice. As a tissue engineer, you could grow clean meat. As a machine learning specialist you could work to minimize the chances of global catastrophic risks, and as an economist you could research how to maximize the positive impact of charitable cash transfers. And this just to mention research that would tackle the three cause areas we should prioritize according to EA.
Altruism for the Patrick Batemans of the world
In Doing Good Better, MacAskill proposes an ethical test to his readers. Imagine you’re outside a burning house and you’re told that inside one room is a child and inside another is a painting by Picasso. You can save only one of them. Which one would you choose to do the most good?
Of course, only American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman would choose to save the painting. Yet, MacAskill argues that, if you save the Picasso, you could sell it, and use the money to buy anti-malaria nets in Africa, this way saving many more lives than the one kid in the burning house.
The argument makes sense, albeit it sounds less like a serious moral proposition than as something a know-it-all could jokingly quip. And that’s probably how MacAskill intended it.
Anyway, the child-in-the-burning-house story is a good example of the most and less convincing aspects of Effective Altruism – at least as far as I’m concerned.
Among the least convincing, there’s surely this implicit tendency of being a movement that predominantly caters to white male nerds with a major in computer science. In a memorable account for Vox, journalist Dylan Matthews recounted his experience of the 2015 EA Global conference held at Google’s Quad Campus in Mountain view. Matthews – an effective altruist himself – described the movement as “at the moment, very white, very male, and dominated by tech industry workers.” Sure, many EA groups are working to make the movement less homogeneous, but it takes time.
On the other hand, the positive moral of the Picasso vs. kid story is that if we want to do good, we need to focus on the concrete, long-term outcomes of our actions and not solely on our warm, emotional intentions. Otherwise we become like Chidi, well-meaning but ineffective, paving our way to “The Bad Place,” as hell is unsurprisingly called in the series The Good Place.
This article was originally published on Forbes
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Last week, David Gilmour, lead singer of the legendary band Pink Floyd, announced he would be auctioning off 126 guitars from his personal collection. The news wasn’t only exciting for guitar aficionados, but climate activists alike since Gilmour pledged to donate all of the income from the auction to a climate crisis charity.
The final amount after the auction was finalised was 21 million dollars, all of which Gilmour is donating to Client Earth, a non-profit organisation that is using legal action to battle climate crisis.
Gilmour said: “ The global climate crisis is the greatest challenge that humanity will ever face, and we are within a few years of the effects of global warming being irreversible. I hope that the sale of these guitars will help ClientEarth in their cause to use the law to bring about real change. We need a civilised world that goes on for all our grandchildren and beyond in which these guitars can be played and songs can be sung.”
Not everyone can donate 21 million dollars as Gilmour did, yet every penny towards our fight against climate change counts. If you, too, want to have a small contribution towards protecting our planet, consider donating to Cool Earth below. Cool Earth works with local rainforest communities and halts deforestation, protecting the very trees that are natural carbon offsetters.
On June 20th, the Amsterdam City Council joined over 600 local governments around the world, including London, Auckland, Prague, Milan, Quebec City, and declared climate crisis. The Netherlands branch of the climate activist group Extinction Rebellion had demanded that the city recognizes the climate crisis by way of a protest, a funeral procession for the city of Amsterdam, three days prior to the decision.
The declaration came after Sylvana Simons of the political party Bij1 gave a speech about the urgency of the climate crisis and the need to acknowledge the city’s duties. Simmons said:
“We are in an unprecedented ecological disaster. The climate crisis is already the end of the way of life and the lives of many people. Young climate change leaders, Extinction Rebellion activists and concerned citizens throughout the world are right to make themselves heard and demand that politicians take the necessary measures to combat the climate crisis. By declaring a climate emergency as the first Dutch city we send a clear signal that Amsterdam hears them and will do everything in its power to deal with this crisis. ”
Following the city's recognition of the climate crisis and a motion by Jaspar Groen, a councillor with the green party GroenLinks, the municipality has also proposed a climate clock showing Amsterdam's carbon emissions and how much the city has got left in its carbon budget.
There is no denying that the plant-based and animal product free food sector is rapidly growing. Every day, there is news of a well-known chain releasing a plant-based alternative to their traditionally meaty offers, or a big food conglomerate investing in plant-based options, or a new exciting company that is producing some sort of meat, dairy, or poultry alternative.
Proveg is an international food awareness organisation raising awareness about the benefits of a plant-based diet for the planet, animals, and the humankind. The organisation has been very instrumental in making animal-product-free diets mainstream and has started a startup incubator programme in 2018. The programme, first of its kind, supports emerging innovative startups with the goal of reducing animal product consumption. Here are five exciting startups from their equally exciting list of cohorts.
The first lab-grown meat product might have been a burger but the clean meat field has grown a lot since 2013 when Mark Post and his team served the $300,000 burger. That cultured meat is the next big thing is news to approximately no one but this doesn’t mean we can’t still be excited about the budding innovations. To me, ClearMeat is one such exciting cultured meat prospect. Based in India, ClearMeat is on its way to produce the world’s first chicken mince and move on to products such as tandoori chicken and chicken tikka masala from there. Chicken is the main source of animal protein in India and as the country's population steadily grows and the people's economic power with it, chicken consumption also seems to be growing rapidly. ClearMeat’s goal is to provide sustainable, healthy, and affordable meat alternatives to a growing population.
I love a good mushroom. They’re easy to cook, delicious in and of themselves, and have many species that are different but equally tasty — one might even say they’re magic. Mushlabs is employing the magic of the mushrooms and applying it to producing sustainable sustenance in an ingenious way. You might be thinking portobello burgers and mushroom mince, but instead, Mushlabs takes the roots of mushrooms and uses fermentation to produce a protein-, fiber-, and micronutrient-rich ingredient. The production process of Mushlabs uses indoor farming systems that employ vertical stacks to grow plants. Because they are stacked, vertical systems take up considerably less land and, because they are controlled environments, require less water. This makes the potential negative environmental impact of Mushlabs proteins comparably lower than it’s animal counterparts and even plant proteins. Mushlabs might soon be the answer to the questions vegans get the most: “But where do you get your protein?”
3) Legendairy Foods
Numerous people in numerous labs are on the journey to produce meat without the slaughter and intensive farming of animals but the animal farming industry doesn’t end with just meat. Although plant-based milks are on the rise even with non-vegan consumers, dairy is still very much part of the majority of people’s diet. Legendairy Foods is aiming to give people dairy milk without the destructive environmental and ethical consequences. Through a fermentation process, LegenDairy Foods transform microorganisms and sugar into milk protein and then on to dairy products. Dairy milk without cows. From anecdotal evidence, cheese seems to be the one thing people feel like they can’t give up when the topic of going vegan comes up. To me, real cheese without real cows seems to be the perfect solution to that.
Russian startup Greenwise, produces plant-based meat alternatives — meat and jerky — that are structurally almost identical to meat. Their products look, feel, and chew like real meat. Amongst the five companies, Greenwise is the one that I actually got to taste the products of and I can attest to their claim. Their plant-based meat comes in dry form and you can cook it any way you like. It absorbs the taste of whatever you decided to cook it with very well, be it broth spices or a sauce. I think GreenWise is making way in a relatively underdeveloped side of plant-based meat production. A side that is quickly growing with companies like Beyond Burger taking off in terms of media and consumer attention. That is, producing plant-based meat for meat eaters. The products of Greenwise are made to replace meat in dishes without having to compromise on taste or texture. They appeal to a fast-growing consumer base of environmentally or ethically conscious people who want to reduce their impact but not ready to give up meat.
5) Better Nature
I first discovered tempeh as a delicious protein source upon moving to the Netherlands. Tempeh is a soy product (although it can be made with other beans as well) that is made by fermenting cooked beans into a cake-like solid block. It’s a rich source of B12 (a vitamin everyone and not just non-meat eaters often lack), protein and dietary fibres. Tempeh originates from Indonesia and is a staple in SouthEast Asian cooking, thus thanks to the large Indonesian community in the Netherlands it’s very easy to find here, you can find it in almost all supermarkets. However, I was surprised to learn that it’s not at all this common or well known in other parts of the world, even the most cosmopolitan ones. Better Nature wants to change this and be the company responsible for making tempeh mainstream. They are taking this ancient food and applying contemporary scientific methods to it in order to make it even tastier and richer in protein and vitamin B12. The result is an affordable and nutritious food product that is at the same time much better for our planet compared to animal proteins.