Effective Altruism and Everyday Decisions

Ask for your drink with­out a straw.
Un­plug your microwave when not in use.
Bring a wa­ter bot­tle to events.
Stop us­ing air con­di­tion­ing.
Choose prod­ucts that min­i­mize pack­ag­ing.

I’ve re­cently heard peo­ple ad­vo­cate for all of these, gen­er­ally in the form of “here are small things you can be do­ing to help the planet.” In the EA Face­book group some­one asked why we haven’t tried to make es­ti­mates so we can pri­ori­tize among these. Is it more im­por­tant to reuse con­tain­ers, or to buy lo­cally made soap?

I think the main rea­son we haven’t put a lot of work into quan­tify­ing the im­pacts of these ev­ery­day choices is that they’re minor com­pared to ques­tions like “what should I work on?”, “if I’m donat­ing where should the money go?”, “how can we figure out the im­pact of our choices at all re­li­ably?” etc. Quan­tifi­ca­tion, even at a very rough level, is re­ally hard and so we should fo­cus on the most im­por­tant ques­tions first.

A sec­ond rea­son, how­ever, is that these sorts of ac­tivi­ties are of­ten shock­ingly poor trade­offs. Per­haps you give up AC to save elec­tric­ity, but then you get less done dur­ing the day, sleep poorly at night, and only save $3/​day in elec­tric­ity and ~$0.75/​day in CO2 [1] Or you buy zero-waste laun­dry paste which you dilute at home, putting money and effort into avoid­ing a very small amount of plas­tic pack­ag­ing. Or you take cold show­ers and en­joy them dra­mat­i­cally less while slightly re­duc­ing your use of heat­ing fuel. Ad­vo­cacy of­ten ex­plic­itly or im­plic­itly treats ac­tions as free, while a full eval­u­a­tion needs to also con­sider the cost to your­self.

I’m not say­ing our per­sonal choices don’t mat­ter and that we should give up, but a small num­ber of our choices mat­ter far more than oth­ers, and we should put our efforts there.

(Pre­vi­ously: 2015, 2013, 2012.)

[1] This is figur­ing 600W av­er­age us­age for a win­dow unit, which is 14.4kWh/​day. Our marginal cost for power is $0.21/​kWh, on the high side na­tion­ally, so $3/​day. Figur­ing 1T CO2 per kWh, this is ~0.007T CO2/​day. Us­ing the same 95th per­centile EPA so­cial cost es­ti­mate I used in this post, $105/​T, that’s $0.76/​day. Th­ese are very rough num­bers, but they’re enough to see that the costs are low.