At ALLFED we are wanting to use available data sources from UN, risk agencies and others to highlight vulnerability, exposure, risk and missing recovery capacity in food systems 18-24 months ahead, which gives time to build some capacity on a preparedness basis.
There is other data work to do which Prof David Denkenberger could tell you about.
Would you be interested to have a call about this?
>I like the idea of building “resilience” instead of going after specific causes.
That’s almost exactly the approach we took in ALLFED, treating the more likely GCR and Xrisk scenarios as a “basket of risks”...
… and then looking at how to build resilience and recovery capacity for all of them, with an initial focus on recovering food supply.
We now have more than 20 EA volunteers at ALLFED, in a range of disciplines from engineering to history, so clearly this makes sense to people.
>For instance, if we spend all of our attention on bio risks, AI risks, and nuclear risks, it’s possible that something else weird will cause catastrophe in 15 years.
Most likely a “cascading risk scenario” … (as covid is, without yet being a GCR) …
.… or what EA Matthijs Maas calls a “boring apocalypse”.
>So experimenting with broad interventions that seem “good no matter what” seems interesting. For example, if we could have effective government infrastructure, or general disaster response, or a more powerful EA movement, those would all be generally useful things.
yes the DRR (disaster risk reduction) discipline gave us structures and processes, and enabled us to bridge across to UNDRR, a profession of disaster people, insights into preparedness-response-recovery which we are scaling up to whole-continent and whole-planet scale, etc
Brilliant to raise this topic, and I like what you wrote but both diagrams are weak. For me a good diagram shows very specifically how a single change will be achieved, and shows if there is too long a chain for success to be likely.
Regardless of diagrams, we all have conscious or unconscious theories of change, and many (especially in climate change) have been useless.
The classic unconscious theory of change is:
brainy guy does research > publishes > civil servants write a policy > wise politicians decide > funds are allocated > policy is implemented well
The main weakness here is that it’s a very long chain, with many obstacles in each link.
Compare to coal industry’s ToC, which they learned from Big Tobacco:
“create confusion about climate science” + “capture Congress” > block all carbon tax proposals nationally and internationally
Good ToC for EAs involves:
selecting good and astute targets of change (whether in real world, movement or metta)
smart routes to achieving the change
updating appropriately (at a Goldilocks frequently, not too rarely to stay current, not too often to frustrate the teams doing the work)
For “natural conservatives”, this may sometimes involve finding ways of opposing harmful change, and proving that some policies are a bad idea, or need fine tuning.
Just a note that under the Sendai Process, UNDRR is now considering Xrisks, largely thanks to input from James Throup of ALLFED and Prof Virginia Murray, and will go on to consider cascading risks, sometimes called the “Boring Apocalypse” (ref EA Matthjis Maas).
I appreciate your post Brandon. I think there’s a clear case that education and being able to exit survival level of poverty and knowing that your health and your children’s education are secure enables people to focus on other things (demonstrated again in recent Basic Income research).
Development and poverty reduction is very helpful but perhaps not sufficient: response capacity and good leadership is also needed, as we have seen in the pandemic?
For finance ministries isn’t the key first step some clarity on whether mental health spending improves mental health more than, say, improved housing, social security, children’s parks etc?
(Obviously postpartum depression and other specific mental health issues could be an exception.)
It’s nice to see the photo—is that the team, and are there more details about the people doing the project somewhere?
What will be the monitoring and evaluation of outcomes, and how will spending be accounted and tracked.
so glad to see this discussion
who are you RootPi and can you reach me at ALLFED.info?
Excellent, especially as I very much agree!
We didn’t get a vaccine for SARS-1 in time to be useful, and we don’t have one for the 4 endemic coronaviruses, and it seems very likely that covid19 will become endemic/seasonal, so it is quite likely that all money spent on a vaccine will be mostly wasted. So if you really have that money available, it may be better to spend it on # improving treatment and prophylaxis# protecting doctors, health staff and family members better (eg. negative pressure rooms)# improving your health system or nutrition for all-causes mortality
#better preparedness for the next pandemic, which may have far higher mortality, including rapid testing/isolation ramp up capacity# low dose effect Challenge Trials, as proposed by Prof Robin Hanson, especially for humanitarian/relief workers and young Navy teams
It depends if you define “coronavirus” as the virus, or the whole cascading scenario we are in, and whether you take account of fear, coms and incompetence*.
If you consider India, where the scenario includes a national lockdown and secondary deaths from involuntary migration, loss of health services, malnutrition, impoverishment, a huge hit to the economy etc, this is really bad, and comparable to the 1930s, even in the context of malaria etc.
(Apology for not adding links/refs—I’m v busy on ALLFED pandemic work.)
If we had had preparedness in the form of a ready-to-go food voucher system in every large city, or tracing and “smart lockdowns” much of this secondary / cascading impact could have been avoided. Any good working group, if they included lockdowns as part of a pandemic preparedness strategy, would within an hour of interrogating that strategy have seen the need for such a voucher system, and that preparing and installing one would have been ridiculously cheap, compared to the downside risks and consequences, and that maybe a test-trace-isolate as done successfully in Korea and Kerala would be a far better approach.
So that would have taken preparedness work, and imitating best practice in Korea etc, and one way to do this would be through Foresight Institutes not dissimilar from FHI, Gates Foundation, Oxford Martin School etc, which ALLFED.info proposes for South Asia, as do others.
We also, need to understand why the SARS-1 lessons learned were implemented in some Asian countries but not in UK, USA, Italy etc and whether our governments simply lack the needed capacities-incentives-culture, and therefore it must be done by Central Bank continuity teams, private sector or new institutions with their own constitutional/federal mandates, which can’t be undone or unfunded by political whim or due to short-sighted errors.
*By fear, coms and incompetence I mean whether your theory of change is along the lines:
< academics do research and propose solutions → wise politicians listen and implement and never get confused between science and economic thinking and their own agendas >
or whether you take account that
(a) governments don’t always successfully limit fear in the population and that fear may drive mass behaviour as much as reality
(b) that how communication happens culturally may be a huge factor (compare NZ, India, China, USA, UK, Kenya)
(c) governments take decisions for a range of reasons, and simply presenting logical solutions to governments, even campaigning for them, isn’t effective as many people imagine, especially in high pressure or fast-moving scenarios
So your preparedness may require equal attention to coms/media/internal coms/Nudge work as it does to classic DRR, implementation science/scaling etc.
This is perhaps somewhat unintuitive to the EA movement, which tends to have very few people involved in behavioural and psychological science, with a few honourable exceptions such as Fiona Conlon and the Charity Science (Health) team in India which I believe includes Varsha Venugopal, Krutika Ravishankar, and Nithya Nagarathinam—they are working on SMS messaging to support safer behaviour during covid19.
Thank you for this excellent post and analysis Ian—I’ve been working on the pandemic since January and still learned a lot.
1. This “crisis” seems to me a huge opportunity for changes in how we do education. I’d love to see posts on that, or does someone have links?
2. I think working on covid could more broadly help with preparedness for cascading risks, GCR and Xrisk. Sahil Shah at ALLFED.info is learning and doing a lot on this, with FAO, WFP and others, but it would be great to see metta level work also, pulling out lessons learned from an actual response, which is a rare opportunity.
One useful thing could be to itemise and appreciate and learn from institutions, individuals and media that have done 1 or more really useful thing during the pandemic, because the chances are they would be good for the next pandemic, GCR or Xrisk event too?
3. I had great support here in India from Katriel Friedman and Fiona Conlon and team at Charity Science (Health). They are well-networked and could be worth funding in themselves, as could ALLFED (I’m biased!) and Indian animal charities (ask EA Aditya SK for suggestions) as could the Indian EA network itself: Varun Deshpande has been working up a competent proposal which I think is ready for funding: a small amount could make a. huge difference and be really encouraging and fertile. I also see a huge need for an Asian 80,000hours, and I’m supporting 2 universities who want a Foresight/Futures/Xrisk institute. The pandemic is making it very easy to see the need!
4. Lessons learned, but not implemented. For example, how come lots of countries including UK derived lessons learned from SARS-1, but only a few actually implemented those lessons (e.g. HK, Korea)?
In India, having 50kg of food vouchers ready and printed in every large city (+ some preparedness and training exercises) would have enabled a more subtle lockdown to happen without disrupting food supply (and causing lots of involuntary migration, with much suffering and death) and the cost would have been tiny.
Are there high leverage things we could do now, as we propose projects for funding, that could action the lessons learned more robustly and lastingly?
Should we be aiming more towards corporations and institutes, city regions and central banks than governments, who can “forget” or reverse or unfund preparedness when it becomes old news?
Is there a science of preparedness/recovery finance and preparedness nudge? Should it be part of the emerging fields of resilience and scaling/implementation science?
or should recovery be its own field, as it’s always going to be the most neglected “last part” of any broader field such as resilience or DRR disaster risk reduction?
Obviously preparedness and recovery is core work for ALLFED.info (interest: I cofounded). Sahil Shah is leading the work on cascading risks and financial mechanisms and direct support to Ethiopia and Tanzania, with support from myself, Sonia Cassidy (director of operations in London) and Prof David Denkenberger, EA and philanthropist.
5. At the moment it’s very hard for any country to mount a humanitarian response to the next hurricane/cyclone—how can you put hundreds of people onto a ship or train and send. them into a disaster zone, where they could infect or be infected, and all the ICUs are flooded?
An obvious solution would be to do the safest possible Challenge Trial, and if I was a young Red Cross worker I would absolutely want to volunteer, for my own safety. The blockage is the wariness of doctors, who tend to consider only the narrow risk to the persons they treat, and not the broader consequences of no action (a variant on trolley problem, but with much. bigger consequences for no action). So I think there is an important legal/ethical issue around Challenge Trials, and probably a need for a new or adapted and faster ethical approval process, enabling proposals like those from Robin Hanson/Pete Singer/vaccinologists/C-TIG googlegroup to happen. At the moment there are too many restrictions/blocks which mean only high risk unofficial routes are available, and no competent research/tracking/publishing gets done, so we don’t learn whether Challenge Trials have a safe protocol or not, and can’t go to scale. Matthjis Maas in Copenhagen Law centre has worked on cascading scenarios (which he calls “boring apocalypse”) so he might be a good collaborator, especially as neighbouring Sweden is, in effect, doing a wild and risky national Challenge Trial, with the virus itself. This is a bit dense and deserves a thread of it’s own, with 3 authors—of someone is interested, please message Dr Aaron Stupple or Robin Hanson.
If anyone wants to reach me about any of this, WhatsApp +447765477305 while I’m in India and messages to www.facebook.com/andyraytaylor are robust, otherwise via www.ALLFED.info.
I’d also love a volunteer or three to run a crowdfunder?
I have noticed similar challenges in other movements on and offline. Two approaches have proved helpful (contact me for refs fore the first):
(a) an ombudsman service (ombudsperson?) which can initially be tried out in one part of a movement. This can be accessed by those in official positions as well as users or people affected by an EA’s behaviour. The people involved don’t have to be older, but do tend to have a “calm, considered” nature. Such a service typically doesn’t go as far as offering a full mediation or arbitration service, as that is a major undertaking, but can recommend that the parties access such a service if that seems a good way forward with a finely balanced or potentially resolvable issue.
(b) www.RestorativeCircles.org developed in Rio by Dominic Barter and others. This is low cost compared to other ADR approaches and requires little training. It can even solve the problem of one party not being willing to participate, as (if appropriate) they can be advocated for by a 3rd party. I’m not clear to what extent it can be applied with online text interaction only, but I imagine it has more potential than other processes, especially with voice communication.
An important aside, I think voice communication can often resolve things far more quickly than text alone, especially asynchronous email/forums, as the voice contact carries so much more. Even if all that happens is that it feels clear that this person can’t engage one to one with your concerns, that’s useful to know, and opens up options of mediation, arbitration, ombudservice or pause, rather than endless unproductive text.
William I wonder if EA is also, whether we accept this or not, a part of a wider/older historical effort?
I don’t mean just people like Esther Duflo at the MIT Poverty Lab, health economists, bottom billion / development economists, Joseph Rowntree Foundation and its social wellbeing research, Oxfam, IDS Sussex, public health people, epidemiologists and (obviously) utilitarian philosophers ….
… but also older roots such as Quakers like prison reformer Elisabeth Fry and anti-slave trade groups, or various buddhists and Christians prioritising health care, the relief of poverty etc.
Of course many of these will have been less mathematical than many modern EAs, and we could identify other differences. However all of these were to significant degrees interested in evidenced improvements and policy improvement, and some still are.
By acknowledging and exchanging with their existing knowledge bases and experiences, wouldn’t we be better placed to expand and mainstream the best that EA can offer? And be less ignorant about effective and altruistic work and research that has already been done, and lessons already learned, perhaps especially when it comes to creating and maintaining a movement?!
I’m appreciating this exchange. I wonder if part of the problem stems from the word welcoming*, especially as selection bias naturally tends to neglect those who didn’t feel welcome. This could especially be a problem for assessing how welcome women feel, if what’s happening is that many quickly don’t feel welcome and simply leave.
One way to overcome this would be to set up a contact list for a group of male and female people attending an intro event. Even 10 of each (and 5 others) could be useful, not for statistical significance but for an initial assessment at low cost in time and effort. This could be via email but better would be via phone also. You could follow up after the first activity, at the end of the session, a month later and a year later. It could be repeated on a small scale at several intro events, which might give more initial info than a large sample at one event, which might not be representative.
The most powerful tool might be telephoned “semi-structured interviews” which is a well-established social science and participatory appraisal method. Again you wouldn’t be looking for statistical significance but more for hypothesis generation, which could then be used in a follow up. eg if a lot of women were saying something like “I just didn’t feel comfortable” or “it was too ….” that could suggest a more specific follow up study, or even lead directly to thoughts about a way to redesign intros.
It helps if such a survey wasn’t conducted by someone seen as an organiser, and perhaps ideally a woman?
an alternative might be “satisfaction” ?
For me, the ones we should worry about are the ones which are most likely in the next 5-9 years.
If I understand the history (eg. several occasions when a USSR-USA nuclear war was almost triggered due to software errors) and the scenario analysis (ie. all the ways something similar could happen via the smaller nuclear powers) - the biggest near term likelihood is of an “accidental” regional nuclear war in the Middle East, perhaps because one country erroneously believes it is being attacked, or because one country has had its chain of command hacked or hijacked in an unexpected way.
I believe that the high likelihood from the smaller Middle East powers comes not from high likelihood of any one given scenario, but rather from the large number of pathways to a nuclear exchange, a “basket of risks”, each one individually being of low likelihood, but collectively adding up to a likelihood far bigger than any one scenario.
In case anyone thinks that a regional nuclear exchange wouldn’t be too bad, Robock et al have discussed direct consequences such as “nuclear autumn”, and cascading scenarios are obviously a risk.
Paul Ingram (www.basicint.org/our-staff/paul-ingram) would be excellent to discuss this with, as he specialises in this area and has done since the late 1980s.
I’m not sure that offsetting is better than nothing—it may actually be harmful:
1. Offsetting fools people into thinking that their emissions from (eg) flying can be “made harmless” in some way, whereas the bald physical reality is that for flight emissions, they are the most dangerous emissions, in the most fragile part of the atmosphere (apart from ESAS methane release, and long term impact of HCFCs and HFCs).
2. It’s harmful to help persuade people it’s fine to pollute and pay, rather than actually reduce actual emissions, especially if most offsets don’t genuinely lead to real and lasting net emissions reductions.
3. Offsetting is a way that corporations can make out that they and their customers are somehow not causing net harm ie. off-setting contributes to corporate greenwash, which is a form of lying.
yes nice summary
I liked the Founders Pledge work on this also:
I agree there’s an overlap with poverty and catastrophic risk. I used to work on cloud feedbacks and options for slowing global warming, but (seeing the slow progress of governments) I switched to working on a possible consequence of climate change, namely multiple bread basket failure (MBBF) and abrupt global famine, and how to prevent that. So with David Denkenberger I co-founded ALLFED.info—could ALLFED be considered a climate initiative in the new review?
Concerning translation, it can be a mistake to imagine it’s necessary to translate the whole of texts, or large texts.
Instead, translating a title and summary, or first paragraphs, or a contents page or back cover of a book, can be enough to help people decide in if they want to translate the whole thing into their own language, or read with the help of google/dictionary.
If anyone out there is interested in supporting EAs in India, or visiting EAs in India, please feel free to message me via www.ALLFED.info ….or join the Effective Altruism India Facebook group
“what’s the path to reaching policymakers?”
I like this question, and obviously we don’t want a Yellow Brick Road, leading to a grand figure with no practical power.
[A quick reply, without references, so please read as illustrative/descriptive rather than definitive. This isn’t a full answer to your question Aaron, but I hope it gives some impressions of how things are developing in our approach.]
Initially we were keen on reaching policymakers, and we still are to a considerable degree, but we’ve discovered the following:
Reaching actual policymakers is a long chain: …. first the science >> then economic justification >> then it has to be affordable in the present policy climate, and no serious political risk >> whatever is proposed has to make it through congress/parliament before the administration changes >> nothing deflects the previous effort or funding after that.
The UN is not able to coordinate globally for a long list of reasons, including that USA and China would do their own thing, with allies/neighbours. The UN, mainly via WFP/FAO and UNHCR/UNICEF, may have a role with the 40-60 LDCs (who are used to getting famine relief or refugess support in the event of local/national/regional disasters) but those four UN agencies too need preparedness for a new approach in a scenario where they would have no food to deliver as emergency relief, once pre-positioned stocks were exhausted.
Preparedness ASAP for a century / millennium of risks is what we want, but thinking on that time scale it isn’t a high priority on electoral cycles or in finance ministries: “no one is expecting the Spanish Inquisition” (ie no one expects to get blamed for not preparing for a GCR/X-risk event) and food security, GCR or disaster preparedness have rarely been an electoral issue, except when disasters are managed badly (as Hurricane Katrina)
In scenario/simulation exercises, both we and WWF/US Navy have found governments are mainly occupied with themselves, with each other and with the media in the crucial initial weeks of a shock/crisis, and they are typically not thinking ahead to failed harvests some months away. I’ve been told by a State Department academic, that historical records and cabinet minutes reflect similar behaviour in real world events.
This increases the relative importance of preparedness over response.…
.… and of financial markets (who do respond fast to emerging media and science), reinsurers (ditto), industry and academics over government.
To a considerable degree, all of these non governing institutions can think longer term, and have a better “institutional memory” than the Oval Office or the Cabinet Office (UK). [An exception is the military, who are typically strong on scenarios and have them stored and accessible, but in democracies they can’t decide priorities outside their own remit.]
If you reflect, this makes perfect sense: few Western / major countries have a living memory of famine (China and Netherlands are among the exceptions, and this is reflected in policy) and governments are by necessity generalists, so one would indeed expect specialists like futures markets, reinsurers, the military, academics, and even some industry players (eg “business continuity” consultants) to be in a better position to focus on this kind of issue, and that is indeed what we have found.
In scenario/sim work, we are finding that major global media have several important roles to play.
So for these and more reasons ALLFED is working:
in London, on financial mechanisms that would enable industry to do preparedness work that doesn’t wait for government either on preparedness or in actual GCRs
with academics, starting with UCL and Bristol volcanologists as they have such a nice clear GCR example, but stretching across to agriculture and supply chain people, in order to present a well formed case for better preparedness, and response systems that are flexible, and a food system recovery strategy that is also flexible
in India, with those already working on district / national scale disasters and on multiple monsoon failure / multiple breadbasket failure, but encouraging them to think “even-worse-case” scenario
on the technologies themselves, open sourcing as far as possible
on expert networking eg at GCF Stockholm, Oxford Martin School, Climate and Security Initiative in the Hague (an annual conference by Clingendaal, the diplomat training school)
with individuals in politics/government/civil service who demonstrate a long term interest in these issues, eg the “Black Sky Lord”, Lord Harris in the UK, and Cabinet Office civil servants who are asking for response protocols as they just don’t have them, or the time to create them: so these are topics of discussion with the volcanologists, who already have channels because of the threat to aviation even with smaller eruptions
Nevertheless, government will almost certainly be important in an event, and getting GCR/X into disaster preparedness (aka “mainstreaming”) would be great.
One way to do this is via NASA into the UN’s Sendai process, and I will working on text for that in later this year.
Overall, policy people do often rely on the seniority of scientists to tell them who to choose to listen to about which risks to take on and how. (Obviously, seniority is not necessarily the best criteria, especially with emerging tech! But that’s the realpolitik, and what we have to work with.) So ALLFED needs a bigger repertoire, more heavyweight policy institutes backing us, and a wider network of academics who have “bought in” to our line on cost effectiveness and duty-of-care (for nations to protect their population).
Academics, like everyone else, can be conservative and scared of ridicule, so ALLFED is emphasising GCR more than X-risk, not because we think X-risk is less important, but because in order to reach policymakers you have to
(a) be able to communicate about things that they can conceive of and grapple with
(b) help them not fear attack in the press for being too sci-fi
(c) give them clear “realistic” justifications for their own finance people.
And again, the volcanic GCR example is very helpful here because we have a clear historical precedent or two (Tambora and Laki) that politicians can relate to. It’s also easy to convince them that another VEI7 (or worse) is certain to happen some day.
We are also working on fall back strategies in case there is a GCR/X-risk event in the next year or two, so that ALLFED is of immediate and practical usefulness to some governments/media and industry.
One area it would be great to have specific funding for, as a self-contained project, is a self-updating GCR/X expert directory. Almost everyone we network with wants one of these, and no one has cash/staff to do it. I’d like to see an India EA project funded to do it.