Values Update
November 18, 2018

UPDATE: After reading and re-reading this post, I want to remind you that the epistemic statuses of these claims are “very uncertain.” I’m always learning, always updating; and although I may seem quite certain about these things, I’m actually not certain at all. The things I say about capitalism, for example, are a reaction to the horrible inequality in the world. If it can be shown that that’s caused by something else, then I might be willing to give capitalism a chance; but in the meantime, I have to call it as I see it.

This is a post about how some of my values have changed over the past several months and years.

Effective Altruism

Several years ago, I tutored math students. I think I was pretty successful; I saw my students grow and learn. But I felt that the process was inefficient because I could only help one student at a time, and I realized that teaching in a regular school setting might allow me to help more students at a time (albeit in a somewhat diluted manner, since I wouldn’t be able to provide as much one-on-one help to individual students). So, that’s what I did. But, towards the end of that time, I began to feel again a lack of efficiency. Between bureaucracy, grading, and keeping parents happy, I felt unable to really teach how I wanted; and my classes were relatively small. I considered going larger and trying to do online education via MOOCs. But at about the same time, I began to feel that education was the long, slow game towards improving the world. I absolutely believe that education is important, and that we should play the long, slow game to improve the world. But I also began to feel that the present moment’s stakes were just too high, and that I needed to have a more direct, immediate impact, if possible.

It was about that time that I discovered the Effective Altruism (EA) movement. EA prioritizes doing as much good as one possibly can, which implies doing as much good as efficiently as one can. Well, I was hooked immediately. I started reading books and listening to podcasts (especially the 80,000 Hours podcast), and felt utterly convinced by the arguments and by the overall mission to “do good better.” I was impressed by their child and sibling organizations, like Givewell (which researches the efficacy of charities), 80,000 Hours (which researches impactful career paths), the Center for Applied Rationality, and others, all of which seemed to value the sorts of things I valued and to want to ensure that they were pouring their resources into the most important causes. But my views hadn’t been fully formed yet, so they gave me words to explore the ideas that I’d mostly been trying to flesh out slowly and reclusively. I was so compelled by these ideas that I spent the last several months applying for jobs at EA organizations. Sadly, though, I’ve largely been unsuccessful because I just don’t have any relevant research experience.

For a while, I was completely sold on everything EA. But I’ve recently started having doubts about some of its facets. Don’t get me wrong: I’m still totally on board with the central goal of doing as much good as possible. But I’ve begun to wonder whether the actual cause priorities make sense. 80,000 Hours prioritizes career paths based on three factors: (1) how important the field is, (2) how neglected the field is, and (3) how tractable the primary problems of the field are. On the surface, this seems like good reasoning. After all, why should we waste resources on fields that aren’t important, that are already well-funded and saturated with researchers, or that do not even conceivably admit of solutions? For example, Effective Altruists (henceforward “EAs”) admit that climate change is very important, but they choose not to expend resources on it because it’s supposedly already a well-covered field. And while I think that these three criteria are generally an excellent rubric for choosing priorities, the recent IPCC report has made me wonder whether or not climate science—and, more bluntly, our near-term survival—should take priority over other causes. In other words, this might be an “all hands on deck” moment in which increasingly many resources should be spent on the problem of survival until it is solved. In even more other words, perhaps the importance of the saturation of the field should vary inversely with the product of the deadliness and the immediacy of a particular threat: the more immediate and deadly a threat is, the less it should matter whether or not there are already lots of people working on the problem. Presumably, EAs are worried about diminishing returns on investment as fields become increasingly saturated. But in the case of climate change and other existential risks, every little bit of return might make the difference between extinction and survival. When the gazelle runs from the lion, death is on the line. The gazelle is forced to expend all of its resources on running and can no longer afford to think about potential risks in the future (if gazelles do that sort of thing, which they probably don’t). If it transfers even a tiny bit of its mental energy towards thinking about where it’ll find food later, or if it pauses even for a fraction of a second to catch its breath, the game is over. I worry that we’re in a similar situation, and that the amounts currently being spent on climate-related research, education, lobbying, and policy-making are nowhere near where they ought to be.

I’m also surprised that EAs don’t seem to focus a lot on democratic health. Some of them focus on the very long-term future (millions of years out), which very well may be important; but I’m skeptical that they should focus on it to the point of neglecting of the short-term future. Democracy is currently dying around the globe, which could easily lead to great power wars, which would drastically increase the risk of nuclear or biological war, which could easily destroy most or all of large life on the planet. 80K did recently release a report suggesting that working in politics in the US (specifically as congressional staffers) could be high-impact work. But I worry that these two issues—climate change and democratic health—should be given much more attention. I guess another way to say that is that I just think that much more attention should be paid to short-term existential risks (even well-covered risks) than is currently being paid. After all, there won’t be humans in the very long-term future if there aren’t humans in the very short-term future.

I suppose I’m willing to be wrong on these points. If it can be shown that each additional climate-related researcher, educator, lobbyist, or policy-maker adds virtually zero value to the field, then perhaps there’s nothing to do but wait and hope. But I’m extremely skeptical that we’re in such a position yet.

Solarpunk-ism, Anticapitalism, and Commons-ism

And because the IPCC claims that we’ve only got a dozen years or so to get our collective shit together—which, in my opinion, almost certainly can’t happen as long as far-right populism, fascism, nationalism, and protectionism are growing in popularity around the world as rapidly as they have been—I’ve begun to think about where I’ll be when it all hits the fan. Will I have to migrate to avoid drought, war, or the collapse of society? Will I survive at all? I’m extremely unsure how worried to be on this point. Some days, I fear that I’m being too alarmist. That usually occurs on days when the evidence isn’t immediately obvious, when I look out the window and cars drive calmly by and the temperature is fairly normal and the grocery store carries every conceivable food. Other days, I worry that I’m not being alarmist enough, usually because scientists and journalists are doing their gosh-darnedest to wake people (myself included) the fuck up. I’m constantly updating my beliefs on this point and do not feel any kind of certainty yet. But I do think that there’s a reasonable amount of preparation that can be done. I can update my passport, pack a bug-out bag with essentials, learn how to grow food, learn how to purify water, learn how to build a house, learn about electricity, etc. Upon hearing those things, you may think that I already have my tin-foil hat on too tight. Perhaps you’re right. But then again, updating my passport and gaining knowledge (especially broad, shallow knowledge across fields like medicine, botany, chemistry, biology, and physics) costs little and benefits much, so I don’t feel any qualms about making investments there. I’m less enthusiastic about spending time, energy, and money on those other things. I don’t want to become a full-on survivalist until I absolutely have to; but I’d be willing, in the meantime, to gain skills equivalent to those of an Eagle Scout.

I also suspect that small, local communities may become increasingly important, either as possible antidotes to whatever feelings of powerlessness are driving people to want to break down democratic institutions or as the only remaining social structures if civilization collapses. I’ve become increasingly skeptical of capitalism and increasingly interested in ideas related to decentralization, P2P technologies and processes, The Commons, anarchism, reduced consumption, and sustainable living. Most of these ideas are wrapped up under the umbrella of “solarpunk.”

Capitalism maximizes profits, especially absentee profits, meaning that you’re “winning” at capitalism when you can make money without doing anything at all. This usually means that someone else is doing more work for less pay so that you can benefit. This also usually means that ownership of some resource—especially land—is the most desirable outcome, since it means that you can charge others for mere access to your resource without having to lift a finger at all. Another method of “winning” at capitalism, if you’re a producer, is to drive down production costs by mass-producing your supply and then driving up demand to match it through artificial means. The consequence is that supply and demand are in constant flux, usually with demand lagging far behind production; and it also means that capitalism can be extremely wasteful. We’ve all seen dealership lots that contain way more new cars than will ever be sold. Also, although division of labor may not necessarily be implied by capitalism, the current state of divided labor means that whole segments of the population can lose their livelihoods at a moment’s notice when their labor can be automated. (And, of course, instead of reaping the benefits of the automation, these laborers are merely put out of work, and the owner of the automated system becomes massively more wealthy.) Capitalism also relies on a scarcity mindset, and even on imposing artificial scarcity where none exists. This is especially problematic in the case of abundant resources, like knowledge. More than anything else, though, capitalism is a system that encourages and rewards inequality, and that must pursue profit by any means necessary. Therefore, when competition gets fierce, the competitors get fiercer, resorting to corruption, bribery, lobbying, and even putting their own supporters in positions of political power to get their way. In fact, unregulated capitalism must become governments and consume the whole world because capitalism is incompatible with democracy: in capitalist societies, the poor majority will always wish to tax the rich; but the rich will do everything in their considerable power to break democracy either fully or at least enough to let them escape from having any of their power taken away. And the majority can never become wealthy themselves, since capitalism requires never-ending competition which takes little to no account of human rights or dignity and which always moves towards a state in which wealth is accumulated in the hands of a few. Capitalism should also be blamed for the climate crisis and for the resurgence of the current far-right lunacy. As Mark Bray says, “We must recognize that the climate crisis and the resurgence of the far right are two of the most acute symptoms of our failure to abolish capitalism. A capitalist system that prioritizes profit and perpetual growth over all else is the mortal enemy of global aspirations for a sustainable economy that satisfies needs rather than stock portfolios. ... Capitalist crisis, competition and manufactured scarcity also provide essential fuel for the growth of fascist and far right politics—especially when there is no viable left alternative.”

For whatever reasons—the ignorance of the public, far-right politics, aggressive PR and lobbying from oil and gas industries, etc.—the needle of political will hasn’t moved far enough fast enough. Extinction Rebellion (XR) is a response to the lack of progress on climate issues. XR’s goal is to continually increase direction action and civil (and perhaps eventually uncivil) disobedience until the problem is solved. That seems like exactly the right response to me given that nothing else seems to be working. Hopefully, the movement will grow enough to make change happen.

Decentralization, Federation, Open Source, & P2P

Finally, you’ve heard me talk a lot recently about moving away from the big tech companies. It’s been a breath of fresh air. I thought I’d miss all of those services, but I honestly haven’t. I love Mastodon. I’m still learning Scuttlebutt, but I’m liking it so far. ProtonMail still has a few performance issues and tiny bugs, but I’m otherwise completely satisfied with it. Direbase and FileDB have worked really well for my personal tools like Niamelle and Notes. PulseSMS has been great for text messaging. DuckDuckGo has been my search engine of choice for several months now. I’m still not thrilled with Firefox—it will probably never be able to match Chrome in speed—but it’s functional.

I’ve written about my reasons for this change in previous posts, so I won’t elaborate here.

Conclusions

I try to be hyper-skeptical of attitudes that smack of conspiracism or apocalypticism, which means that I’ve been really hesitant to allow my own fears to run rampant. But it has finally seemed justified to me because: the overwhelming majority of climate scientists tell us that extinction is on the horizon if we don’t change course; journalists from many trusted news organizations regularly reveal to us the manifold ways in which companies display atrocious, reprehensible behavior; and real people lose their lives because of fascism. And just because many cases of conspiracism and apocalypticism are unjustified doesn’t mean that there are no situations in which they’re justified. Just because some gazelles might be overly jumpy doesn’t mean that gazelles are never in real danger.

I value honesty, kindness, equality, and autonomy. Doing justice in the world includes remedying situations in which individuals, corporations, or governments are dishonest, unkind, unfair, and/or oppressive. I don’t know yet where I fit into the process of making a better world, but so far I guess I’m just trying to do as much good as I can in my little corner of it.