Misc., Uncategorized

Hot Showers, Dairy, and Offsetting

Epistemic status: Mixed. The opinions in this post accurately reflect mine at the time, but I’m not sure I would endorse everything I said here now. In particular, I wouldn’t now be comfortable making the claims in the last third of the post without better sources. 

I really like this post by Jeff Kaufman.

In the post, A tries to convince B that B should stop taking hot showers because of the impact of heating the shower on climate change. B responds that he would rather donate $5 a year to offset his energy use than take cold showers, and that the donation would probably have a much greater impact on climate change than taking cold showers. The conversation between A and B mirrors comments on another of Jeff’s posts about the value of eating a dairy-free diet. (I have one small gripe about this post, which is the use of AMF as an index-charity. I think cross cause-area comparisons are controversial enough that we should avoid them if not talking about cause prioritization, so for the rest of the post I’ll assume cold showerers are only maximizing climate change improvements, and that ethical vegans only care about animals.)

In general, I think that the direct benefits of donations to high impact charities often outweigh the direct benefits of difficult lifestyle changes, and that cash donations will often be less invasive and less painful way for people to have an impact.

However, I don’t think B is factoring the signalling value of lifestyle changes vs. small donations correctly in this exchange with A.

A: Your numbers look plausible but you’re ignoring the communication value of giving up warm showers. I’m skeptical of your assessment of donations to effective charities vs. personal consumption changes because it seems to ignore many of the important effects of personal changes like signaling your disapproval of the energy system, especially when that signaling is coming from a particularly influential person (which I think the average EA is). If you tell your friends, and they follow your lead and tell their friends, we can reduce emissions a lot.

B: The per-person benefit of cold showering is still very low, and nearly everyone would prefer to donate $5/year than give up warm showers. And your donations can inspire others just as your consumption changes can. So people should donate to effective charities, and not worry about the showers.

I don’t think that donations inspire others in the same way that lifestyle changes do, and I think A might prefer B to take cold showers rather than offset his consumption even if cold showers don’t directly help the environment very much. I think A’s preference for B’s action should depend on:

1) How much better high-visibility lifestyle changes are for movement-building around a cause area vs. offsetting donations. (I would guess much better)

2) The number and severity of costs resulting from the pursuit of ineffective lifestyle changes for faster movement building. ( I expect it would vary a lot among lifestyle changes. I think the potential costs of vegan diets are much higher than cold showers. )

Per 1) I think it’s likely that high-visibility lifestyle changes are much better at generating connections between activists than offsetting donations. If I start attending cold shower meetups with other people who take cold showers every morning, we have an unusual shared experience and an obvious common interest. If I attend an offsetting donation meeting, we still probably have common interests, but our only determinate shared experience is having a bit less money than we would otherwise. This effect is more obvious with more invasive and more public lifestyle changes. I’ll use veganism as my example from here on, but most of what I say will be about lifestyle changes as a class.

Most of the value of vegan diets (and some other purity-focused behavior changes) plausibly comes from creating social in-groups through signalling. Activists who are connected to one another through shared activities, and a shared public identity, might be more likely to become motivated to take action for the cause, and more resilient to fatigue/defection. I think it’s also likely that tight knit groups are better at attracting new members, and that tangible sacrifices like avoiding milk or taking cold showers might be better at promoting group cohesion. Coupled with the well-trod fact that successful movement building multiplies the efforts of an individual exponentially, and I think we have the outline of a case for preferring the lifestyle change over an offsetting donation.

Per 2) Vegan diets don’t seem to be very good at at promoting resilience, but the vegan label has been effective at creating tight-knit groups and motivating people to be more active in the animal rights movement. I also expect that the efforts of vegans, as a class, are generally pretty ineffective, and this is potentially very dangerous for their cause. As a general rule. outcome-insensitive, highly-persuasive social groups are a bad thing.

On the other hand, its possible that the benefits of bringing more people into the movement and motivating them to act might outweigh that. One scenario where this would probably be true is if vegans are more likely switch from ineffective to effective animal-focused interventions than non-vegans are to take highly effective actions in the first place. The deciding factor here is probably the cost-effectiveness distribution for interventions within the target cause area, though there might be weird signalling costs associated with converting from ineffective to effective interventions.
I think it’s likely that not-obviously-effective lifestyle changes have most of the traits above, most of the time, but I’m really uncertain about how large these effects are. I also expect that many of the above advantages in movement-building could be gained with fewer costs by other social movements more focused on effectiveness. Earning to Give is plausibly a lifestyle change that weds the best of both worlds. Still, I think there are a lot of uncertainties in the value/feasibility of movement building vs direct donations, and I don’t think the comparison between cold showers (or eating dairy) and offsetting donations is straightforward.


Extended Interview with PSI Impact

Note: A shorter version of this interview was previously published at PSI Impact. This post is the extended text of that interview. 

Tyler John and Chris Byrd are the President and Vice-President, respectively, of Giving What We Can: DC (GWWC: DC). Ahead of GWWC-DC and PSI’s joint event, The Most Good You Can Do: A Conversation with Peter Singer, John and Byrd discuss the effective altruist movement and how it relates to PSI. Join us on Friday November 13,, 2015 in Washington DC to listen to Peter Singer and go into more depth about this growing movement.

1)    What is Singer’s most influential piece of work, in your opinion?

TJ Singer’s most influential work has probably been Animal Liberation. In philosophy this was the first sustained manuscript devoted to answering the question of how we ought to act regarding nonhuman animals. It helped to spawn a lively discussion in philosophy about nonhuman animals and now, 40 years later, nearly no philosophers think that it’s okay to treat animals the ways we currently do. But the book is also credited with kicking off the whole modern-day animal rights movement, in the U.S. as well as internationally.

CB It’s hard to know how to measure his influence. It gets hard to separate Peter’s personal achievements from the influence of his written work.. Animal Liberation may well be Prof. Singer’s most influential piece of work. In Animal Liberation, Peter managed to ferret out a moral issue that many ordinary people cared about, but that wasn’t part of the public discourse. My first exposure to Peter Singer was in the context of animal rights, and I think that’s still true for many today. Another way to measure Peter’s influence is in his impact on human lives, and by that standard his TED talk ‘The How and Why of Effective Altruism’ might be his most influential work. I can’t tell you how many people who are now deeply committed to solving global poverty have told me that watching that TED talk drew them to the cause.

2)    Can you tell us about his most recent book – The Most Good You Can Do?

TJ The Most Good You Can Do is something of a manifesto for the effective altruism movement. In it Singer explains that a growing number of individuals and organizations are choosing to devote great amounts of time and resources to the most effective causes, and he argues persuasively that each one of us should join the movement. If we can, by sacrificing a little, prevent a great harm from occurring, we ought to do so, and we ought to do so in a very prudent and thoughtful way.

CB The Most Good You Can Do is about the blossoming effective altruism movement, and the importance of thinking critically about giving. If The Life You Can Save is about opportunity, The Most Good You Can Do is about responsibility. Giving to charity can be very emotional; for many of us, the decision to give is motivated by strong feelings of compassion and hope for the world to be a better place. I believe that our ability to care in this way is the best part of human nature. Despite the reverence that I, and many others, feel for these emotions, they can lead us astray. The Most Good You Can Do is Peter’s attempt to help us navigate our feelings and give where it will do, well, the most good.

3)    Where does the effective altruism come from and what does it mean to the every day person?

TJ Effective altruism is a movement that started at Oxford University in 2009, though the movement’s ideals were first codified in Singer’s famous paper “Famine, Affluence, and Morality”, and subsequent book The Life You Can Save. In its simplest form, effective altruism says this: Figure out what you really value, and then make that a significant priority in your life. If you’re disturbed by poverty, disease, and infant death, take a significant portion of your time and money and use it to eliminate as much extreme poverty as you can. If you can’t stand animal suffering, devote a part of your life to farm animal advocacy so that you can save as many animals from a horrible fate as is possible. Effective altruism means giving generously, working effectively for causes, and engaging in meaningful activism – each of us should contribute in whatever way we can.

CB Where does the effective altruism come from and what does it mean to the every day person?

To my knowledge, the term ‘effective altruism’ first came into use at Oxford in/around 2009, when Toby Ord and William MacAskill were beginning to drum up support for what eventually became Giving What We Can. Effective altruism has since become the rallying cry for a social movement dedicated to putting more of the world’s wealth and expertise where it can be of most value. I think that I’m an every day person, and to me effective altruism is really just putting resources where they can create the most benefit for everyone. It just so happens that some of the biggest opportunities to help people cheaply and easily are in the world’s poorest countries. Many nonprofits are taking advantage of the human-welfare gold rush that exists in the developing world, and a few of those stand out far beyond the rest.

4)    How can effective altruism be applied to poverty reduction?

TJ Nearly everyone cares about reducing poverty. Poverty makes life more difficult, makes illness more prevalent, and means that people can’t get the things that they need or want. If we want to reduce poverty, then we should do so in the most effective way possible. For example, we might have $1,000 that we want to spend on poverty reduction. We could give that $1,000 to a Standard Charity, which would use the $1,000 to provide a child with medical care and food for three years (this is a real example from a popular child sponsorship charity). Or, on the other hand, we could give that $1,000 to an Effective Charity – like PSI, for example. $1,000 given to PSI will provide fifty-six years of healthy life through disease-prevention, maternal health, family planning and other health services. Compared to the three years that could be provided by the Standard Charity, it seems perfectly clear that PSI is the better buy, and that all of us should be giving to Effective Charities rather than Standard Charities.

I think this message also needs to be taken very seriously by NGO’s that fight extreme poverty. Effective altruism is a call to action for Standard Charities to take a look at what Effective Charities are doing and see how they, themselves, can do better – in some extreme cases, this may mean as much as revising their whole business model.

CB Effective altruism aligns very naturally with poverty reduction. Poverty sucks. People trapped in poverty struggle for even the most basic human needs. They get sick more that other people, and suffer more from their illnesses, they do incredibly hard work for incredibly long periods and still barely manage to get food, water, and a safe place to sleep. Poverty is also incredibly prevalent. In 2012, 2.2 billion people lived on an income below ~3 US dollars a day. That’s 7 times the population of the United States. Such a huge problem represents an incredible opportunity to improve the well-being of the world. Poverty, as any expert will tell you, is also a very tough nut to crack. Effective altruists can help accelerate the elimination of poverty by researching and funding the most effective methods of bringing people out of poverty, and encouraging others to do the same. Effective altruism encourages charities to be transparent and accountable, and can help direct money to the organizations which are doing the best job of ending poverty, not just advertising to their donors. We must have high standards for those working on behalf of the poor. We owe it to each other.

5)    Peter Singer has always been a staunch supporter of Population Services International (PSI). What aspects of PSI do you think resonate with him most?

TJ Singer is committed to supporting whatever causes will do the most good, all-things-considered. He must believe that PSI will do comparably more good than the vast majority of other charities fighting extreme poverty and improving human health. I just used a figure from Singer’s organization, The Life You Can Save, which predicts that for less than $18 PSI can provide a year of healthy life to someone living in extreme poverty – that’s over eighteen times more benefit than the Standard Charity I mentioned above provides! It certainly doesn’t hurt that, in addition to providing health benefits, PSI’s family planning education programs help impoverished parents to have smaller and better-timed families, which is likely to produce economic benefits and, by slowing the growth of the human population, decrease humanity’s negative impact on the environment, our climate, and non-human animals. I think these are some of the reasons why Singer supports PSI.

CB Peter Singer has always been a staunch supporter of Population Services International (PSI). What aspects of PSI do you think resonate with him most?

Most nonprofits start out with great intentions. It is easy to remain focused on improving your organization and your work when a group is small and young. It is much harder to stay that way after those years of hard work pay off with size and success. As one of the largest charities in the world, and also one of the most effective, PSI serves as a model for what international development organizations can be. PSI’s family planning and contraceptive programs are innovative and well-run and their impact is carefully tracked. PSI can buy an insecticide-treated malaria net, deliver it, and educate the recipient on its use for $10. That’s incredible; it’s an extraordinary opportunity to invest in our fellow human beings. I think Peter recognizes that PSI has become large enough to have a truly global impact without losing sight of a world where its programs are no longer needed. That’s a very rare thing.

6)    Why did you decide to start Giving What We Can – DC? What is the main purpose of the organization? Why should people get involved?

TJ I started Giving What We Can: DC to encourage others to give more of their time and money to the most important causes. Giving What We Can: DC is a society, or in other words a social gathering. We meet regularly so that members can help one another decide how and where they should give, talk about philosophy and philanthropy, and encourage one another to keep doing our best. We also host events, like this one. We have a number of very fun and interesting events planned for the months that follow Singer’s talk.

People should become members of GWWC: DC if they want to figure out how best to help others, if they want to inspire others to give to the most important causes, or if they simply want to meet other altruists and advocates and have a good time. Members of our chapter plan to give over $10 million dollars in their lifetimes, and joining GWWC: DC is a great way to help encourage others (and yourself!) to do the same.

CB It is very hard to become aware of suffering. By acknowledging that those living in poverty are real, we become affected by their pain. Once you realize that terrible things are happening to innocent people just doing their best, there is this need to fix it. I think almost everyone who is moved to help people in the poorest places in the world feels called to work on the ground. One of the early insights of the effective altruism movement was that the best ways to help those in need are often not the most visceral or satisfying. For most people in the United States, they can have a far greater impact by building a career, learning valuable skills, and earning money to give to organizations that are implementing the most effective programs to end poverty. Giving What We Can DC is a community of people in the DC area who want to support one another in taking this path, and encourage others to do the same. Giving doesn’t have to be a chore, it can be a deeply rewarding thing. Giving What We Can is here to help people give more, more easily.

7)    Final question – how has Peter Singer’s work shaped the way you live your life?

TJ It’s unlikely that any single person has shaped my life more than Peter Singer has. Singer’s writings have dramatically shaped the things that I value, and have influenced me to become an advocate for the global poor as well as non-human animals. It is largely due to Singer’s influence that I hope to attend graduate school next fall and begin a career as a moral philosopher. (Apart from his influence, I’d likely have become a doctor.) Without Singer’s work, I very probably would not have started GWWC: DC, pledged to give a significant portion of my income, or stopped consuming animal products. Peter Singer is one of my great heroes.

CB Peter Singer is a hero of mine. He has this incredible ability to connect people’s hearts with their heads. Before becoming involved in the effective altruism movement, I was cynical about changing the world for the better. The most important problems seemed hopelessly large, and charities seemed more interested in manipulating my emotions than creating change. Through exposure to Peter’s ideas, my vision for my life and my role in the world radically changed. I am so incredibly lucky to have been born where and when I was; I have an amazing opportunity to make the world better. I hope that by exposing people to Peter’s work, others will realize how much power they have to change the world for the better.