He has himself agreed to step back from the EA community more generally, and to step back from public life in general, which would be an odd move if these were minor misdemeanours. He has admitted that there have been numerous cases of improper conduct. To me, this evidence, combined with the fact that he has been treated so severely by CEA updates me towards the view that the allegations are serious. I suspect there is a lot of legal wrangling and confidentiality concerns here that don’t give us full information, but the signals are not good.
Can you explain what the mechanism is whereby biodiversity loss creates existential risk? And if biodiversity loss is an existential risk, how big a risk is it? Should 80k be getting people to go into conservation science or not?
There are independent reasons to think that the risk is negligible. Firstly, according to wikipedia, during the Eocene period ~65m years ago, there were thousands fewer genera than today. We have made ~1% of species extinct, and we would have to continue at current rates of species extinctions for at least 200 years to return to Eocene levels of biodiversity. And yet, even though significantly warmer than today, the Eocene marked the dawn of thousands of new species. So, why would we expect the world 200 years hence to be inhospitable to humans if it wasn’t inhospitable for all of the species emerging in the Eocene, who are/were significantly less numerous than humans and significantly less capable of a rational response to problems?
Secondly, as far as I am aware, evidence for pressure-induced non-linear ecosystem shifts is very limited. This is true for a range of ecosystems. Linear ecosystem damage seems to be the norm. If so, this leaves more scope for learning about the costs of our damage to ecosystems and correcting any damage we have done.
Thirdly, ecosystem services are overwhelmingly a function of the relations within local ecosystems, rather than of global trends in biodiversity. Upon discovering Hawaii, the Polynesians eliminated so many species that global decadal extinction rates would have been exceptional. This has next to no bearing on ecosystem services outside Hawaii. Humanity is an intelligent species and will be able to see if other regions are suffering from biodiversity loss and make adjustments accordingly. Why would all regions be so stupid as to ignore lessons from elsewhere? Also, is biodiversity actually decreasing in the rich world? I know forest cover is increasing in many places. Population is set to decline in many rich countries in the near future, and environmental impact per person is declining on many metrics.
I also find it surprising that you cite the Kareiva and Carranza paper in support of your claims, for this paper in fact directly contradicts them:
“The interesting question is whether any of the planetary thresholds other than CO2 could also portend existential risks. Here the answer is not clear. One boundary often mentioned as a concern for the fate of global civilization is biodiversity (Ehrlich & Ehrlich, 2012), with the proposed safety threshold being a loss of greater than 0.001% per year (Rockström et al., 2009). There is little evidence that this particular 0.001% annual loss is a threshold—and it is hard to imagine any data that would allow one to identify where the threshold was (Brook, Ellis, Perring, Mackay, & Blomqvist, 2013; Lenton & Williams, 2013). A better question is whether one can imagine any scenario by which the loss of too many species leads to the collapse of societies and environmental disasters, even though one cannot know the absolute number of extinctions that would be required to create this dystopia.
While there are data that relate local reductions in species richness to altered ecosystem function, these results do not point to substantial existential risks. The data are small-scale experiments in which plant productivity, or nutrient retention is reduced as species numbers decline locally (Vellend, 2017), or are local observations of increased variability in fisheries yield when stock diversity is lost (Schindler et al., 2010). Those are not existential risks. To make the link even more tenuous, there is little evidence that biodiversity is even declining at local scales (Vellend et al., 2013, Vellend et al., 2017). Total planetary biodiversity may be in decline, but local and regional biodiversity is often staying the same because species from elsewhere replace local losses, albeit homogenizing the world in the process. Although the majority of conservation scientists are likely to flinch at this conclusion, there is growing skepticism regarding the strength of evidence linking trends in biodiversity loss to an existential risk for humans (Maier, 2012; Vellend, 2014). Obviously if all biodiversity disappeared civilization would end—but no one is forecasting the loss of all species. It seems plausible that the loss of 90% of the world’s species could also be apocalyptic, but not one is predicting that degree of biodiversity loss either. Tragic, but plausible is the possibility of our planet suffering a loss of as many as half of its species. If global biodiversity were halved, but at the same time locally the number of species stayed relatively stable, what would be the mechanism for an end-of-civilization or even end of human prosperityscenario? Extinctions and biodiversity loss are ethical and spiritual losses, but perhaps not an existential risk.”
While it is good that you are apologising, I would also like to point out that the allegations are serious enough for CEA to: (1) ban you from EA events; (2) remove you from moderator roles in EA Facebook groups; (3) generally completely disassociate and sever ties with you; (4) sever ties with the Sentience Institute. These steps, to my knowledge, are completely unprecedented for CEA. For this reason, I would caution against the EA movement being overly welcoming of Jacy in the medium term at the very least.
I agree that the environmental movement is extremely poor at optimisation. This being said, there are a number of very large philanthropists and charities who do take a sensible approach to climate change, so I don’t think this is a case in which EAs could march in and totally change everything. Much of Climateworks’ giving takes a broadly EA approach, and they oversee the giving of numerous multi-billion dollar foundations. Gates also does some sensible work on the energy innovation side. Nevertheless, most money in the space does seem to be spent very badly, e.g. on opposing nuclear power. This consideration might even make the environmental movement net negative wrt climate, though I haven’t crunched any numbers on that.
I would also add that sensible EA answers in this space face substantial opposition from the envionmental movement. I think a rational analysis argues in favour of advocating for nuclear and carbon capture, for energy innovation in general, and for financial incentives for preventing deforestation. All of these things are opposed quite strongly by different constituencies in the environmental movement. Maybe the one thing most people can agree on is carbon pricing, but that is hard to get through for other reasons
Thanks for this. It’s useful for the community to think about this kind of thing and this is well-argued.
1. It’s a good point that since the top AI fields seem oversubscribed, it might be worth some people moving into the next best causes. Another possibility is that they should wait until the number of organisations catches up with the number of people. It might even be that the most valuable options is having a reserve of a large number of people who could, with some probability, be a good fit for the highest-impact orgs, even though most of these people never end up working for high-impact orgs. This puts a new slant on the demandingness of EA: rather than making sacrifices by donating, EAs make sacrifices by being prepared to accept the substantial probability of themselves never having impact. This would be hard to take psychologically, but might be the right thing to do in a crowded talent space.
2. On indirect risks, another point I make in the FP report is that while climate change is an indirect stressor of other risks, this suggests to me that working on those terminal risks directly would be a better bet than working on climate change since climate change is such an indirect stressor, is very crowded and seems difficult to make progress on. What do you think of that argument?
3. I don’t think it is right that problems with high tractability should be de-prioritised. I think what you mean is that we should focus on things that shift the long-term trajectory of humanity. But these could be highly tractable. e.g. the problem of not starting nuclear war was tractable for Vasili Arkhipov, but plausibly had large long-term effects. Having looked at it in some depth, climate change does look an intractable problem overall and this is indeed a reason not to work on it.
4. Another good point on how there could be increasing returns to scale in climate change, as we could affect the huge pool of funds going to the space through engagement.
5. Really, the ITN perhaps shouldn’t be used when we have cost-effectiveness estimates. On the 80k rendering, ITN is literally a cost-effectiveness estimate. But we now have cost-effectiveness estimates of climate charities. If we can make plausible estimates of the impact of bio, AI and nuclear, then we should use those, rather than appealing to the ITN. similarly, for use of time as well as money.
5. It is premature to say that work on climate change could be tractable. I think careful analysis is needed to figure out whether the things you list are indeed a good bet compared to other things that EAs could do.
6. Climate Action Tracker suggests that on current policy, we are in for 3.1 to 3.5C, which is different to the ‘baseline’ trajectory estimate that you give. I think the current policy trajectory is most relevant for that part of your argument. (But note that this is only by 2100)
7. The impact of climate change on food production is in fact predicted to be fairly modest, as I discuss here. Yields might fall by 10-20% but this will be in the context of rising productivity and improvement in the other factors that determine the supply of food.
8. The emphasis on water shortage throughout is a bit overblown. We don’t need to ration water, we just need to price it properly (which is efficient rationing). If we did that, there would be no water problems today or in the future, anywhere (provided people had enough money).
Obviously, a lot is being withheld, probably for legal and confidentiality reasons, by CEA. As I mention in my first comment, the wider information suggests that the allegations are serious. Could you clarify the second part of your comment please.
Regardless, even if you think the allegations are minor, “you do great work otherwise” is an extremely ill-judged response, I’m afraid.
Thanks for writing this. I think this may be a cautionary tale of EA hubris, which we should beware of in the future. GWWC had two interns write reports on climate change presumably over the course of about two months, who had no prior knowledge of the area. The movement then took on the Cool Earth recommendation as though it was definitely the best thing within climate change. (This is not a criticism of the authors of the reports, who I think did a good job given the constraints).
There are a lot of foundations distributing billions of dollars in this area, with grant-makers working full time to find opportunities. Climate change is a very complicated area and it is very hard to know who is diong what. I think it would be surprising if GWWC found the best possible thing given its constraints.
I also think it is an argument forchecking lots of conclusions and premises with relevant experts.
We might want to consider whether we are doing something similar in other areas. e.g. is our approach in development, far future or animal welfare naive according to some experts that we haven’t fulled engaged with yet?
Hi thanks for writing this—upvoted. (Speaking for myself here not necessarily Hauke). I think this picks out some flaws in framing and content in the report, though I don’t agree with everything you have said.
1. Framing-wise, a number of people drew the conclusion that impact investing is always ineffective, which wasn’t what I wanted the report to convey, and I don’t think that is supported by the arguments therein. This is corrected in a more recent reworded version of the report, but unfortunately some of the damage is done from initial coverage.
2. I agree that we should have discussed shareholder advocacy in more depth. (Hauke may have some views on this, and may wish to have input here.)
3. Financial returns. We discuss the counter-arguments to this view in the report. This ultimately comes down to the judgement call of favouring theory over very noisy empirical evidence. An investor who only cares about profit would always want as many options as possible available and so would always prefer to have the option of buying stocks in successful companies that do harm, such as fossil fuel and tobacco companies. Our view also seems to be held by many leading economists, as shown in a recent IGM Poll on SRI—http://www.igmchicago.org/surveys/social-responsibility. We discuss the potential confounds of SRI funds doing as well as or better than socially neutral investors. I pose this question: if what you say is correct, why is there not more capital outflow into SRI? Why would socially neutral investors not only do SRI from hereon in?
4. Impact investing effect on corporate decisions. You are discussing here the total effect of all impact investing efforts on corporate decisions. Even on that measure, the effects you mentioned thus far have been modest: publishing sustainability reports, mild effects on cost of debt. The impact these movements haven’t had is more striking. e.g. despite the massive attention devoted to tobacco divestment, this seems to have had basically no effect on the corporate behaviour of tobacco companies, though it may have had some indirect effects by encouraging regulation.
Also, the question we should care about is: what marginal difference will an individual investor make by getting involved in these efforts? We think that effect will be small for the reasons outlined in the report. If the total effect has been pretty modest so far, the marginal effect even on the scale of a few million $s invested must also be small. There might be a tipping point in the future, but it seems a long way away—amounts of actual SRI are small relative to the market cap of major firms, let alone industries
I think the piece is very over the top. Even if all the points were correct, it wouldn’t support the damning conclusion. Some of the points seem fair, some are wrong, and some are extremely uncharitable. If you are going to level accusations of dishonesty and deliberate misrepresentation, then you need to have very strong arguments. This post falls very far short of that
Jacy denies one set of allegations but not the others, so presumably they must refer to different cases at different times
The post is called ‘apology’ and he explicitly apologises for numerous cases of improper conduct
So you think a serious possibility that we should consider is that people at Brown from 7 years ago have come to CEA to complain about Jacy?
Thanks for writing this. Some comments:
1. Labelling. I think it would be useful to distinguish different forms of the systemic change objection. The one you advance in your paper is coming from a socialist point of view, but other forms of the critique, e.g. from Lant Pritchett, come from what could plausibly be categorised as a neoliberal point of view. It might be better going forward to label your critique as the ‘socialist critique’ of effective altruism, which would avoid lumping it in with the neoliberal one, or any other.
2. Do you think there might be an epistemic modesty problem with the socialist critique? The overwhelming majority of economists are broadly pro-private ownership of the means of production, and pro-market. At root, opinion might be split in this way because the claim that “capitalism causes poverty” seems to be strongly in tension with the history of humanity since the industrial revolution. You seem to think it is clear that we should repudiate existing aid and development efforts, but this might be surprising to someone taking the long-view of humanity: since the 1950s, human welfare has increased on all measures by more than all of prior history *combined*. Seen in this view, what we should do is continue with the approach we started in the 1950s. (I should note that this approach—of increasing economic growth—is not what many EAs are focusing on at the moment, and I think this is an error).
3. Your argument for the claim that charity “does more harm than good” by fostering “none of your business norms” (NOYBs) seemed to me heavy on conjecture but light on compelling arguement and evidence. You note how charity as it exists today exists because people have private property and so don’t need to seek approval from the rest of society before making a donation. This is true, but you don’t actually argue for the claim that EA charity therefore supports the norm to such an extent that the benefits of EA charity are outweighed. You say “their very existence relies upon and thus perpetuates NOYB norms” This obviously doesn’t literally logically follow. By the same token, charitable funding of the socialist part of Great Britain relied on NOYB norms, but you presumably don’t think that it is therefore net harmful.
To be clear, your claim is that making a $1m donation to AMF perpetuates capitalistic norms to such an extent that the expected harm is greater than ~200 lives. I find that highly implausible.
4. Clarificatory—You argue for democratic as opposed to private control of key economic decisions, but this can come apart from the aim of reducing poverty. Democracies can and do vote for policies that damage the interests of the poor—witness immigration controls for example. Which do you think should be the ultimate aim for socialists—democratic control or poverty alleviation?
On Bayesianism—this is an important point. The very heavy tailed estimates all use a “zero information” prior with an arbitrary cut-off at eg 10 degrees or 20 degrees. (I discuss this in my write-up). This is flawed and more plausible priors are available which thin out the tails a lot.
However, I don’t think you need this to get to there being substantial tail risk. Eyeballing the ECS estimates that use plausible priors, there’s still something like a 1-5% chance of ECS being >5 degrees, which means that from 1.5 doublings of GHG concentrations, which seems plausible, there’s a 1-5% of ~7 degrees
Oli, this doesn’t make sense.
1. In the Brown statement, he strenuously denies wrongdoing and does not admit the possibility of having done something wrong.
2.You are saying that this is an admission to the possibility of having done something wrong and that this refers to the Brown allegations.
3. He has changed his view of the Brown allegations.
You deny 3. This is not consistent. Please tell me which part of this you disagree with.
This strikes me as a very weird thing to say in the light of sexual harassment allegations as serious as these appear to be.