There are no people to be effectively altruistic for on a dead planet: EA funding of projects without conducting Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs), Health and Safety Assessments (HSAs) and Life Cycle Assessments (LCAs) = catastrophe

A major goal of Effective Altruism is to study in-depth the rational arguments for funding different projects and assign probability estimates for their effectiveness in comparison to others and thus make better funding decisions. Yet EA appears to have a blind spot with regard to the environmental aspects—and even the human health and safety aspects—of what it funds. This can lead to negative unintended consequences—sometimes even catastrophic ones—both for humans and the environment.

Unintended Environmental and Health Consequences

Let’s take the Against Malaria Foundation’s (https://​​​​) much-lauded distribution of insecticide-treated mosquito bed nets project for starters. This was hailed as one of Effective Altruism’s funding successes at the recent EA Global 2022 Conference (https://​​​​olX_5WSnBwk). Yet any environmentalist worth their salt could immediately list off the top of their head a number of reasons why distributing fine mesh plastic mosquito nets soaked in insecticide in biodiversity hotspot wetland areas, for example, where they can be abused as fishing nets (Implications of Insecticide-Treated Mosquito Net Fishing in Lower Income Countries, Environmental Health Perspectives, Vol. 129, No. 1: https://​​​​doi/​​10.1289/​​EHP7001) or end up in unregulated landfills that affect the groundwater, might be a bad idea. Research shows that not only could these nets lead to a collapse of fisheries, and also to the decimation of many other species due to the enormous bycatch of them because of the much smaller mesh size than that typically used in fishing nets, the insecticides used can also affect human health, leading to neurocognitive disorders.

Habitat Loss = Biodiversity Loss

We are in the middle of the Sixth Mass Extinction (Elizabeth Kolbert, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, 2015, Picador; https://​​​​stories/​​what-is-the-sixth-mass-extinction-and-what-can-we-do-about-it), comparable to the asteroid strike that led to the extinction of the dinosaurs. But this time, we humans are the ‘asteroid’. One of the major causes of this biodiversity loss is the loss of habitat. So is it really a good use of our resources to enable even more human incursion on wetlands, which are biodiversity hotspots, by distributing bed nets? Should we not rather be encouraging settlement away from these areas? Also, a major component of the Sixth Mass Extinction is the Insect Apocalypse, which threatens our food security too, since insects are the irreplaceable pollinators of our food crops. Do we really think that pouring more insecticide into these fragile environments is in either the planet’s or our interest?

Insecticide resistance, carbon emissions, and microplastics pollution

Indiscriminate use of insecticides also increases mosquitoes’ resistance to them, and therefore reduces our ability to combat future global pandemics that may be transmitted by this vector. Not to mention the effect of fossil-fuel-based plastic production for the nets’ fabric on climate change, or the danger of microplastics after they are discarded to human, animal and fish health (Microplastics: A Threat for Male Fertility: https://​​​​pmc/​​articles/​​PMC7967748/​​). Additionally, where is the Life Cycle Analysis of these bed nets? How do they fit (or fail to fit) into the sustainable circular economy? (Using life cycle assessment to achieve a circular economy: https://​​​​article/​​10.1007/​​s11367-020-01856-z; WHO recommendations on the sound management of old long-lasting insecticidal nets: https://​​​​iris/​​bitstream/​​handle/​​10665/​​338356/​​WHO-HTM-GMP-MPAC-2014.1-eng.pdf)

A recent article in Nature (Maps and metrics of insecticide-treated net access, use, and nets-per-capita in Africa from 2000-2020, https://​​​​articles/​​s41467-021-23707-7) also describes some (but not all) of the above drawbacks, but more research from an EA viewpoint is needed.

The twin x-risks of infertility and immune suppression

Let’s now cast the net (no pun intended) of unintended consequences of funding this project a little wider: during the past decades, the massively increased toxic load of (forever) chemicals is leading to a reduction in the human immune response (The Capacity of Toxic Agents to Compromise the Immune System (Biologic Markers of Immunosuppression): https://​​​​books/​​NBK235670/​​ ) and human fertility (Environmental Toxins and Infertility: https://​​​​pmc/​​articles/​​PMC6396757/​​), both of which are existential risks if they go so far as to reduce our ability to survive pandemic viruses and if our ability to reproduce dips below a certain tipping point. How do we quantify the contribution of insecticides from bed nets as a proportion of that toxic load, and those twin resultant problems of immune response suppression and infertility?

Millions of lives saved now vs. megatrillions of future lives lost through insecticide-induced extinction event?

I can imagine some of the readers here thinking, ‘Yes, these are all good points – about pesticides’ negative effect on fish stocks and human health and all the rest – but all those lives saved, all those lives positively impacted, by mosquito nets is a very heavy weight on the other side of the scales’ (https://​​​​content/​​article/​​malaria-preventing-bed-nets-save-children-s-lives-impacts-last-decades). The problem here is that lives saved and positively impacted by nets in the near term is relatively easy to quantify, but:

  1. quantifying the partial contribution of the toxic burden of the nets’ insecticide and differentiating that from all the other chemicals in the cocktail that we are steeped in

  2. and estimating the possibility of this toxic burden causing us to go extinct due to insecticide-induced infertility or reduced immune response (rendering us more susceptible to pandemics)

  3. then calculating the megatrillions of possible future lives lost in that extinction event

  4. and weighing up the near-term positive impact and lives saved against this possibly extremely negative/​catastrophic future impact

is extremely difficult, to say the least.

There seems to be an inherent tension here between various branches of the EA movement – those focussed more on altruistic actions in the here and now, and those focussed more on longtermism, future generations, and existential risks. What matters, I feel, is that the dialog is kept open and the most recent science listened to. It is neither helpful nor rational to become so invested in a solution that we cannot pivot away from it when the science changes or becomes clearer. One GiveWell blog post from 2015 felt that a New York Times article that was reporting on the then recent science on insecticide-treated bed nets and the dangers to fish stocks was ‘unbalanced’. The blog post also negated the negative effect of the pesticides on human health (https://​​​​2015/​​02/​​05/​​putting-the-problem-of-bed-nets-used-for-fishing-in-perspective/​​). The more recent science cited in this EA blog post you are now reading, however, upholds and strengthens the view of the multiple problems posed to human and environmental health, and to our food security, by bed nets – not just from the ever-increasing toxin burden, but also from microplastics.

EIAs, HSAs and LCAs must form integral part of EA funding approval process

From this brief outline of some major unintended consequences of a single project it has funded, I hope that Effective Altruism realises that it urgently needs to employ environmental experts, health and safety experts, and circular economy experts to conduct EIAs, HSAs and LCAs as an integral part of its funding approval process. Perhaps also it needs other experts from an interdisciplinary perspective to provide a 360-degree all-round view, hopefully therefore bringing more of the x-risk ‘unknown unknowns’ into the light. When the very future of humanity is at stake, and when the risk of making bad, ecologically unsound funding decisions increases along with the almost exponentially increasing amount of funding that EA is projected to receive, to not do so would run counter to EA’s founding imperative. Instead of doing the most good it could unintentionally do the most bad.

Retrospective analyses of funding effectiveness?

Finally, and more concretely, with respect to the bed nets project, a retrospective analysis of the effectiveness of this funding should include at least:

1. The quantification and assessment of the effect of insecticide leaching into water bodies on the insect apocalypse (The insect apocalypse, and why it matters: https://​​​​science/​​article/​​pii/​​S0960982219307961 ) and the funding of countermeasures to cancel out this negative consequence of EA funding.

2. The quantification and assessment of the carbon emissions of the plastic of the bed nets and appropriate funding of anti-climate change/​carbon emission reduction projects proportionate to these emissions.

3. The quantification and assessment of the adverse consequences of inappropriate disposal of used nets, e.g. by burning in the open air, which causes highly toxic dioxin emissions, and funding appropriate measures for their disposal/​regulation of the waste stream, and for removal from the atmosphere of dioxins already emitted due to the number of bed nets funded that have been disposed of inappropriately.

4. Consider funding effectiveness for more sustainable, long-term solutions for combatting malaria, e.g. by adjusting building design to make them mosquito-proof (How house design affects malaria mosquito density, temperature, and relative humidity: an experimental study in rural Gambia: https://​​​​journals/​​lanplh/​​article/​​PIIS2542-5196(18)30234-1/​​fulltext). How do the costs (including environmental ones) of bed nets that last for only three or four years, and protect one or two people at most, weigh up against those of mosquito-proof buildings that last much longer and protect many more people?

5. Since EA was following WHO advice on the distribution of bed nets impregnated with insecticides (LLINs) to combat malaria, and the WHO also does not seem to have sufficiently considered the environmental and other human health and safety implications of them, EA could fund and encourage more joined-up thinking across disciplines at global organisations to improve institutional decision-making.

The way forward: sustainable and truly longtermist EA project funding

This list, as you might imagine, could be extended to include many more points. Sadly, as this one example demonstrates, doing good is a lot more complex than it appears. And when doing good leads to unintended consequences, cleaning up the subsequent mess may prove many times more costly, in the long run, both in terms of money and in human lives negatively affected, than if one had done nothing. So let us bow our heads in epistemic humility, taking the medical profession as our example, and inscribe this oath on our effectively altruistic hearts: “First, do no harm.”

I have been told that there are a lot of Effective Altruists who would accept some degree of environmental harm, at least if the payoff in terms of human lives saved was great enough. (And I’ve also seen this tendency in some of the members of the EA courses I have been attending.) This attitude is rooted in a mindset, however, that is the cause of many of our problems in the first place: the idea that we humans are somehow separate from nature, and can do with it what we will. Many of us, even if we do not consciously espouse a religion, are still conditioned by monotheistic ideas of humans as the pinnacle of Creation, set above it and in dominion over it. Instead of being just a bipedal ape species among millions of others. But we are thoroughly and completely entangled with the natural world. There is ultimately no distinction between us and nature (https://​​​​humanity-and-nature-are-not-separate-we-must-see-them-as-one-to-fix-the-climate-crisis-122110). Even the very word ‘environment’ meaning ‘that which surrounds us’ is misleading. And if we don’t transform our sapioseparatist mindset then this literally will be the end of us.

So secondly, let us think and fund at the meta-level to increase impact—find the best and most robustly safe leverage points. ‘Quick and dirty’ solutions like LLINs might be appealing on the surface, giving an instant dopamine hit of altruistic gratification, but more patient and considered efforts, like the funding of mosquito-proof building designs, are likely to be far more sustainable and longtermist.

Lastly – for the story isn’t over yet (when is it ever?) – hopefully this post will spark a discussion on the environmental implications of other EA projects. There has been some debate in this forum on EA and environmentalism (https://​​​​posts/​​dmrLcaYGk6yhJa2mZ/​​effective-altruism-environmentalism-and-climate-change-an#do5MJj8M6qcssC6e2), and attempts have been made to link the Effective Altruism movement more to the environmental one (https://​​​​). But Effective Environmentalism (EE) at present only focuses on dealing effectively with climate change. Environmentalism encompasses so much more than this one topic, however (see e.g. Rockström et al., 2009, Planetary Boundaries: Exploring the Safe Operating Space for Humanity: https://​​​​stable/​​26268316?seq=1). Perhaps it’s time for more joined-up EA-EE thinking. Cross-fertilisation between Effective Altruism and Expanded Effective Environmentalism could even be the topic of one of the next EA Globals. I look forward to reading your comments—and please include your vote on that last suggestion 😊!

Postscript, July 3, 2022: An increase in x-risks (however small) must constitute exclusion criterion for EA project funding

In addition to the assessments described above, it must surely go without saying that, before being funded, any EA project must also be assessed for any existential risk it might cause or contribute to—let’s call this an X-Risks Assessment (XRA). Any increase in x-risks completely negates the number of lives saved in the short-term, since it may put an end to the whole human enterprise, reaching far into the future and involving therefore possibly megatrillions of lives.

We have seen in the example given above (and in the comments/​references below) of insecticide-soaked mosquito nets that they not only contribute to the x-risk of the presently unfolding Insectopalypse, with the ensuing threatened collapse of our food systems and famine, they also demonstrably contribute to the total toxic burden on humans in the biosphere, thus exerting a downward pressure on human fertility. If the trend continues and eventually crosses the x-axis (no pun intended), we become extinct.

It is a natural human psychological tendency to discount risks we perceive as small. We are an innovative, risk-taking, entrepreneurial animal. But in the case of x-risks we cannot allow ourselves to do this. We must discipline ourselves NOT to discount them. In the world’s current complex risk scenario of multiple interacting x-risks, the only projects which should be approved are those which we are 100% certain will actively reduce x-risks rather than contribute to them. And if this means that the approval process takes longer and/​or fewer projects are funded, then so be it. Considering what we risk losing—all the glory and joy of human life and culture (and possibly that of all other life forms on this blue jewel, Earth), consigning them to the dark silence of an infinite emptiness—it is irresponsible to act otherwise.


Heartfelt thanks to the facilitator of our recent EA In-Depth Learning Program, Will Horan, for his insightful feedback on an early draft of this post.