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.