How you can save expected lives for $0.20-$400 each and reduce X risk

Summary

The Alli­ance to Feed the Earth in Disasters (ALLFED) is a new EA-al­igned char­ity with po­ten­tial for high cost effec­tive­ness in the global poverty and ex­is­ten­tial risk spaces. I have posted on the EA fo­rum be­fore about get­ting pre­pared for al­ter­nate foods (roughly those not de­pen­dent on sun­light that ex­ploit bio­mass or fos­sil fuels) for agri­cul­tural catas­tro­phes such as nu­clear win­ter. This could save ex­pected lives in the pre­sent gen­er­a­tion for $0.20 to $400. Sun-block­ing catas­tro­phes could cause the col­lapse of civ­i­liza­tion, and there are a num­ber of rea­sons why hu­man­ity might not re­cover, in­clud­ing hav­ing used up the eas­ily available fos­sil fuels. Not re­cov­er­ing from the col­lapse of civ­i­liza­tion is one form of ex­is­ten­tial (X) risk be­cause hu­man­ity would not fulfill its po­ten­tial. In a re­cent EA fo­rum post, I made the case that spend­ing $100 mil­lion on al­ter­nate foods would be similar cost-effec­tive­ness to AI from a far fu­ture per­spec­tive. I also ar­gued that spend­ing at the mar­gin now would be an or­der of mag­ni­tude more cost-effec­tive. This means spend­ing now could save ex­pected lives in the pre­sent gen­er­a­tion at more like 2 cents to $40 apiece (but if I put this in the ti­tle, you prob­a­bly wouldn’t have be­lieved me). ALLFED has an ex­pe­rienced team and board. With a very small bud­get, it has achieved a sig­nifi­cant amount, in­clud­ing a book, nine pa­pers, and four catas­tro­phe plan­ning ses­sions. It has plans to in­crease pre­pared­ness with tar­geted plan­ning, me­dia re­sponse, al­li­ance build­ing, and re­search. It is mostly vol­un­teer and is fund­ing con­strained. I have donated 50% of my in­come the last two years to ini­ti­ate the effort. ALLFED has tax-free sta­tus in the US, but ar­range­ments can be made for other coun­tries. I out­line what could be achieved with differ­ent lev­els of fund­ing and other ways to help. I am try­ing to find a host for the Face­book/​Gates Foun­da­tion Giv­ing Tues­day match­ing event.

Back­ground and cost effec­tive­ness of cause area

The great­est catas­trophic threat to global agri­cul­ture is full-scale nu­clear war be­tween US and Rus­sia, with cor­re­spond­ing burn­ing of cities and block­ing of the sun for 5-10 years. The best out­come is ob­vi­ous: to pre­vent nu­clear war, but this has been worked on for many decades and is cur­rently funded at billions of dol­lars per year qual­ity ad­justed. Stor­ing food would seem to be an ob­vi­ous solu­tion; how­ever, it is far too ex­pen­sive (~tens of trillions of dol­lars) to have com­pet­i­tive cost effec­tive­ness (and it would take many years so it would not pro­tect us right away, and it would ex­ac­er­bate cur­rent malnu­tri­tion). I have posted on the EA fo­rum be­fore about get­ting pre­pared for al­ter­nate foods (roughly those not de­pen­dent on sun­light that ex­ploit bio­mass or fos­sil fuels). This could save ex­pected lives in the pre­sent gen­er­a­tion for $0.20 to $400 for only 10% global agri­cul­tural short­falls like the year with­out a sum­mer in 1816 caused by a vol­canic erup­tion, and would be even more cost effec­tive if sun block­ing sce­nar­ios were con­sid­ered. Cur­rent aware­ness of al­ter­nate foods is rel­a­tively low: about 700,000 peo­ple globally have heard about the con­cept based on im­pres­sion coun­ters for the ~10 ar­ti­cles, pod­casts, and pre­sen­ta­tions for which there were data in­clud­ing Science (out of more than 100 me­dia men­tions). Also, many of the tech­nolo­gies need to be bet­ter de­vel­oped. Plan­ning, re­search and de­vel­op­ment are three in­ter­ven­tions, which could dra­mat­i­cally in­crease the prob­a­bil­ity of suc­cess of feed­ing ev­ery­one, each cost­ing in the tens of mil­lions of dol­lars. Sun-block­ing catas­tro­phes could cause the col­lapse of civ­i­liza­tion, and there are a num­ber of rea­sons why hu­man­ity might not re­cover. Not re­cov­er­ing from the col­lapse of civ­i­liza­tion is one form of ex­is­ten­tial (X) risk be­cause hu­man­ity would not fulfill its po­ten­tial. In a re­cent EA fo­rum post, I made the case that spend­ing $100 mil­lion on al­ter­nate foods would be similar cost-effec­tive­ness to AI from a far fu­ture per­spec­tive. I also ar­gued that spend­ing at the mar­gin now would be an or­der of mag­ni­tude more cost-effec­tive. That is the fo­cus of this post: what the Alli­ance to Feed the Earth in Disasters (ALLFED) can do now.

ALLFED mis­sion/​vision

Mis­sion: In­crease the pre­pared­ness, readi­ness (knowl­edge, re­sources, tech­nol­ogy) of world bod­ies, gov­ern­ments, cor­po­ra­tions, NGOs/​peo­ple to be able to feed ev­ery­one in the event of a global catastrophe

Vi­sion: Form an al­li­ance of key peo­ple/​will­ing par­ti­ci­pants work­ing to de­velop ca­pa­bil­ity to en­able re­sponse to global dis­rup­tion of food supply

ALLFED team/​board

The ALLFED team col­lec­tively has sig­nifi­cant non-profit, for-profit and gov­ern­ment ex­pe­rience. I am an en­g­ineer­ing pro­fes­sor at Ten­nessee State Univer­sity (TSU) with 76 pub­li­ca­tions. I have been work­ing on this pro­ject since 2011, and a dozen of my pub­li­ca­tions are on this topic. Ray Tay­lor has ex­pe­rience work­ing with UN af­fili­ates. Eliz­a­beth Dunn has ex­pe­rience in in­ter­na­tional pro­gram man­age­ment, pro­cess im­prove­ment and op­er­a­tions across sec­tors. Al Hundley has worked in war-torn re­gions on com­mu­ni­ca­tions equip­ment, and he won an Emmy. He has a back­ground in poli­ti­cal sci­ence and philos­o­phy. Ariel Conn helps us with me­dia and com­mu­ni­ca­tions (she is full time at the Fu­ture of Life In­sti­tute (FLI)). She has a back­ground in physics and com­mu­ni­ca­tions. Michael Gris­wold is a stu­dent at TSU who is helping us with re­search and other tasks. Gareth Jones has a 35 year ca­reer in mil­i­tary ser­vice and or­ga­ni­za­tional re­silience and risk man­age­ment.

The ALLFED board also has a wealth of skills and ex­pe­rience. Dr. Joshua Pearce is an en­g­ineer­ing pro­fes­sor at Michi­gan Tech­nolog­i­cal Univer­sity with over 400 pub­li­ca­tions. Dr. Seán Ó hÉigeartaigh is the ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Cam­bridge Cen­tre for the Study of Ex­is­ten­tial Risk (CSER). Dr. An­ders Sand­berg is a se­nior re­search fel­low at the Fu­ture of Hu­man­ity In­sti­tute (FHI) at the Univer­sity of Oxford. Dr. Robin Han­son is an as­so­ci­ate pro­fes­sor of Eco­nomics at Ge­orge Ma­son Univer­sity and a re­search as­so­ci­ate at FHI. Karin Kuh­le­mann is a PhD can­di­date at Univer­sity Col­lege Lon­don Depart­ment of Poli­ti­cal The­ory, and was a lawyer.

Less de­vel­oped coun­tries would be hit par­tic­u­larly hard by these agri­cul­tural catas­tro­phes. We are glad that one mem­ber of our team and one mem­ber of our board are from less de­vel­oped coun­tries to help provide that per­spec­tive.

Accomplishments

Re­search: This in­cludes the Feed­ing Every­one No Mat­ter What book, and nine aca­demic pa­pers on fea­si­bil­ity of feed­ing peo­ple in catas­tro­phes and cost effec­tive­ness of prepa­ra­tion. We have also made pre­sen­ta­tions at sev­eral con­fer­ences/​uni­ver­si­ties in­clud­ing Davos, Switzer­land, Gothen­burg, Swe­den, Univer­sity of Oxford, Univer­sity of Cam­bridge, Im­pe­rial Col­lege, Prince­ton and Cor­nell.

Plan­ning: We have run four catas­tro­phe plan­ning ex­er­cises.

Com­mu­ni­ca­tion & Me­dia: We have had me­dia cov­er­age in 18 coun­tries, over 100 ar­ti­cles, in­clud­ing Science, Wikipe­dia, Dis­cov­ery Chan­nel On­line News, Giz­modo, Phys.org, and Science Daily; in­ter­views on C-realm and Real Talk with Lee pod­casts and Ra­dio Alexan­dria. We have a database of con­tacts.

Or­ga­ni­za­tion: We ac­quired tax free sta­tus in the United States, cre­ated a new web­site, and built up a team and board.

A peer re­viewed pa­per of ours es­ti­mated that work done so far has saved 10,000 to 3 mil­lion ex­pected lives in the pre­sent gen­er­a­tion be­cause al­ter­nate foods has a small chance of be­ing adopted given our cur­rent level of aware­ness.

Learning

In 2016, we ran an es­say con­test on pre­pared­ness and tech­nol­ogy for agri­cul­tural catas­tro­phes in co­op­er­a­tion with the Global Catas­trophic Risk In­sti­tute and FHI. We con­tacted hun­dreds of agri­cul­tural de­part­ments around the world about this con­test. Our hope was that we could get more peo­ple in­ter­ested in the is­sue. There is a tremen­dous amount of un­funded re­search that gets done (e.g. bach­e­lor’s and many mas­ter’s the­ses), so we were hop­ing to push that in a more effec­tive di­rec­tion. Un­for­tu­nately, we had a dis­ap­point­ing re­sponse to the con­test. So in ret­ro­spect, it was prob­a­bly not worth the money and effort (and we are not plan­ning on do­ing it again). How­ever, if any­one has ideas on how to ac­cess this un­tapped re­search po­ten­tial, please let us know.

Sup­port so far

TSU pro­vided teach­ing re­lease and fund­ing for three stu­dents. A Cen­tre for Effec­tive Altru­ism grant is sup­port­ing some re­search (in­clud­ing the X risk cost effec­tive­ness work). I have given 50% of my in­come over the last two years. Also, many peo­ple on our team in­clud­ing my­self are vol­un­teers. We have also had the help of over 40 to­tal vol­un­teers.

What differ­ent lev­els of ad­di­tional fund­ing could do in 2018

Our ba­sic plans for 2018 are to con­tinue re­search un­der the Cen­tre for Effec­tive Altru­ism grant. This could in­clude us­ing equip­ment I have at Ten­nessee State to see if some plants could grow in the trop­ics and nu­clear win­ter (re­duced tem­per­a­ture and pre­cip­i­ta­tion, and high ul­tra­vi­o­let ra­di­a­tion). Also, a num­ber of risks could cause wide­spread elec­tri­cal failure, in­clud­ing a se­ries of high-al­ti­tude elec­tro­mag­netic pulses (HEMPs) caused by nu­clear weapons, an ex­treme so­lar storm, and a co­or­di­nated cy­ber at­tack. Since mod­ern in­dus­try de­pends on elec­tric­ity, it is likely there would be a col­lapse of the func­tion­ing of in­dus­try and ma­chines in these sce­nar­ios. As our cur­rent high agri­cul­tural pro­duc­tivity de­pends on in­dus­try (for ex­am­ple, for fer­til­iz­ers) there would be mass star­va­tion in these sce­nar­ios with our cur­rent un­der­stand­ing. How­ever, there are solu­tions to our food and non­food prob­lems in these sce­nar­ios, and I plan to do a cost effec­tive­ness anal­y­sis of these in­ter­ven­tions. Another pos­si­ble pro­ject is quan­tify­ing the cost per ex­pected species saved by al­ter­nate foods. It turns out it is much eas­ier to keep most an­i­mal species al­ive than to feed all peo­ple. Th­ese catas­tro­phes could cause ex­tinc­tions di­rectly, but also starv­ing hu­mans would likely eat other species to ex­tinc­tion. So al­ter­nate foods could be a highly effec­tive en­vi­ron­men­tal in­ter­ven­tion.

One big ad­van­tage of al­ter­nate foods is that they could re­duce the chance of loss of lives and civ­i­liza­tion if peo­ple just knew about them. Even with­out $100 mil­lion of plan­ning, R&D and with­out co­op­er­a­tion be­tween coun­tries, it could be that 1 billion lives are saved if the sun is blocked if coun­tries were just aware of al­ter­nate foods and tried to make them (and loss of civ­i­liza­tion chance would be much lower). There are a few pos­si­ble ways to get that aware­ness in time:

1) A me­dia re­sponse net­work of ex­perts on X risk, and the mass me­dia know to calls us if there is a catastrophe

2) So­cial me­dia: a mes­sage that will likely be viral af­ter a catas­tro­phe hits could spread fast enough to pre­vent chaos

3) 10-100 in­fluen­tial peo­ple know about al­ter­nate foods ahead of time, and they can get the mes­sage to the lead­ers. This could be some­one like the food se­cu­rity cham­pion of the coun­try, like Tim Ben­ton was for the UK. It could also in­clude peo­ple in me­dia and cor­po­ra­tions.

Even if each of these op­tions has a few per­cent chance of get­ting coun­tries to try al­ter­nate foods given a catas­tro­phe, and they each cost $10,000, they would be or­ders of mag­ni­tude more cost effec­tive than the en­tire $100 mil­lion pack­age.

We have suc­cess­fully se­cured fund­ing to cover op­er­a­tion costs at the cur­rent level for 2018. How­ever, there are un­re­al­ized ac­cel­er­a­tion op­por­tu­ni­ties which ad­di­tional fund­ing would en­able, such as: con­vert­ing our database of con­tacts into a self up­dat­ing use­ful tool for col­lab­o­ra­tors, fur­ther build­ing the Alli­ance, and pro­duc­ing prac­ti­cal ad­vice on how to feed peo­ple in a catas­tro­phe. Ac­cel­er­a­tion is valuable be­cause ev­ery day ac­cel­er­a­tion of pre­pared­ness for al­ter­nate foods saves 100-40,000 ex­pected lives in the pre­sen­ta­tion gen­er­a­tion, and re­duces ex­is­ten­tial risk by ~0.00003%.

Since most of our work is done by vol­un­teers, we have sig­nifi­cant ca­pac­ity to in­crease our im­pact with ad­di­tional fund­ing by pay­ing those vol­un­teers and get­ting more hours. In the big pic­ture, re­search, de­vel­op­ment, and plan­ning for al­ter­nate foods can be done by peo­ple with trans­fer­able skills. For in­stance, ex­perts in biofuels could figure out how to retrofit fac­to­ries quickly to food pro­duc­tion. There­fore, we have great ca­pac­ity to scale up im­pact very quickly through re­quests for pro­pos­als (we are money- not tal­ent-con­strained).

Since I think in terms of or­ders of mag­ni­tudes, here is what ALLFED could do with ad­di­tional fund­ing:

$10,000: This would ac­cel­er­ate mechanisms to in­crease the chance of aware­ness of lead­ers given a catas­tro­phe.

$100,000: We could take on ad­di­tional pro­jects such as pro­duc­ing how-to videos that could be dis­sem­i­nated quickly in a catas­tro­phe.

$1 mil­lion: We could do pre­vi­ous work plus do a re­quest for pro­pos­als (RFP) (or X prize?) to max­i­mally in­crease pre­pared­ness, similar to what FLI did with AI.

$10 mil­lion: This would cover pre­vi­ous but big­ger RFP.

$100 mil­lion (com­mit­ment): We would likely do a $10 mil­lion RFP to figure out the next year’s high­est pri­or­ity re­search, de­vel­op­ment, and plan­ning. This would provide as­surance that the high pri­or­ity pre­pared­ness would be com­pleted.

You might think the best thing to do would be to split your dona­tion across the port­fo­lio of EA X risks. How­ever, since al­ter­nate foods has re­ceived so much less fund­ing than AI and syn­thetic biol­ogy, it would be op­ti­mal for your en­tire dona­tion to go to al­ter­nate foods. An analo­gous ar­gu­ment was made for fund­ing EA move­ment build­ing ver­sus di­rect work a while back on the EA fo­rum.

How to help

We are always open to feed­back and men­tor­ing.

We would love vol­un­teer help on num­ber of pro­jects, in­clud­ing draft­ing re­sponse plans for par­tic­u­lar coun­tries (maybe a hackathon?), mak­ing al­ter­nate foods and doc­u­ment­ing in­struc­tions and videos, so­cial me­dia (now and in a catas­tro­phe), track­ing down in­fluen­tial peo­ple, train­ing for in­ter­ac­tion with the mass me­dia, fundrais­ing, etc. A tax-free dona­tion in the US is easy on our web­site. If you want to get a tax de­duc­tion out­side the US, I’m pretty sure we can figure some­thing out. For in­stance, I found with my donor-ad­vised fund that I could get the tax de­duc­tion in the US, but then the donor-ad­vised fund could dis­tribute in­ter­na­tion­ally. I am try­ing to find a host for the Face­book/​Gates Foun­da­tion Giv­ing Tues­day match­ing event, as our char­ity is not listed. If you know an or­ga­ni­za­tion that would be will­ing to host, con­tact me at david dot denken­berger at gmail.

Notes

1 Note that this is as­sum­ing that the loss of value in the uni­verse from hu­mans never re­cov­er­ing civ­i­liza­tion is similar to AI caus­ing hu­man ex­tinc­tion. Bad AI spread­ing suffer­ing in the light cone would be worse.

2 Tech­ni­cally this num­ber in­cludes some prob­a­bil­ity that al­ter­nate foods will be in­vented in­de­pen­dently in a catas­tro­phe, but this only counts 10% agri­cul­tural short­falls. So when you count sun-block­ing catas­tro­phes, I think this num­ber is a rea­son­able es­ti­mate of our coun­ter­fac­tual im­pact.

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