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Two critical Mega-trends that Effective Altruism has missed so far [Edited]

 

This article aims to make a comprehensive case for two likely future scenarios that would cause immense human suffering on a mostly unprecedented absolute scale, and why we need to undertake extensive measures now to have a chance of averting them.

One of these has the distinct possibility of culmination into an X-Risk (Human Extinction) or at least an immense global crisis, hence hindering human advancement considerably.

Up two this point, neither have been discussed inside Effective Altruism, but I´m deeply convinced that these are highly relevant to us and our endeavour. This very circumstance is not only true "here", but moreover with public discourse in general, making it clear that we as humans continue to have grave epistemic issues, not only in terms of recognizing that an issue exists but in treating it with the appropriate attention and re-allocating the various necessary resources to collectively address it, often due to the nature of statehood and neoliberal economic order.

 

Why I decided to write this article

In October last year, I participated in Effective Altruism Berlin for the second time now. It is one of those rare gatherings in which you meet genuine, intelligent people who are either searching for a meaningful purpose in their life or are already indeed living it, making this not just an intellectual but also a social highlight among the conferences I attend and, by extension, the people I meet.

Or quote Konrad Seifert, who I met at last year´s EAGxBerlin:

"Humans are the top highlight of any EA event. Everyone is warm (±37°C, ideally), open-minded, reasonable and curious. Conversations range from casual chatting to serious truth-seeking and everyone is super knowledgeable in the most different matters. Even better, you can ask anyone anything and they’ll be happy to help you out."

However (like with virtually everything) there was a caveat. As I conversed with the folks from the Foundational Research Institute, the Centre for Effective Altruism and Future of Humanity Institute (from whom I had read a few papers before), my suspicion once again turned out to be correct: Despite all horizon scanning that has happened inside Effective Altruism up to this point

1.   Almost no one has heard the term "peak oil" nor concerned themselves with the research of the Club of Rome

2.   Systemic trends and a looming Malthusian Disaster are not things I´ve been seeing discussed inside EA anywhere nor being worked on by any of EA research bodies

That frankly shocked me and a few others I met there who are working on this or concerned themselves with it, so I decided to write this Article (which took a while to get behind since I´m rather busy with my studies right now), explaining why this is a considerable issue that demands to be discussed and handled on a wider basis inside EA and makes such a title indeed appropriate. 

 

 

Scenario 1: Malthusian Disaster (=large-scale famine) in Sub-Saharan Africa

 

Sub-Saharan Africa. 1 Billion People. The economic size of Belguim (if we except South Africa). Around 70 Percent of people living in rural areas, of whom predominantly "work" in agriculture, i.e. subsistence.  And yes, the continent is immensely big and culturally diverse. In some areas, a middle class is rising and public health has improved considerably. Most people own a mobile phone. With the systemic perspective I provide here to illustrate the problematique, it is important to not socially construct and thereby reinforce prejudice about the region that the Anglo Saxon/ Anglo-American Realm often came to perceive as a homogeneous continent who is to be patronized.

That being said, the most recent famines in the region have not necessarily occurred due to insufficient food production directly, but more due to external factors such as civil wars, rebellions or bad governance disrupting the fragile stability of agricultural “systems”; South-Sudan, Uganda, Somalia, and North-Eastern Nigeria for instance. (Humanitarian response is also a potential cause area that would need to be explored.) However, other pressures or “systemic trends” mount up at an alarming rate, threatening to permanently destabilize the underlying processes to ensure food security and water supply. The following part explores the most important of those trends that, in the middle term, are going to cause this large-scale famine.

 

Factor 1: Land Grabbing

At a steadily increasing rate, soil used by local farmers are being sold off to foreign investors, mostly large agricultural conglomerates or is being overtaken by local elites. As less than 10 percent of land in Africa is formally documented (and thereby theoretically protected by law), corrupt governments essentially exploit this loophole to sell off land to enrich themselves as an elite and oust previous owners who used it for subsistence. The crops that are then being cultivated there (with an impressive array of equipment I might add) are “luxuries” like coffee or flowers for export (“cash crops”) as opposed to staple food for the local population. Furthermore, those cash crops are predominately cultivated as monocultures which threaten the respective region's biodiversity and hence may endanger other livelihoods depending on the local ecosystem.   

The dimensions of this problem are rapidly rising, millions of people are now internally displaced.

 

 

 

Factor 2: The effects of climate change

This is a vast topic, and a considerable amount of research has been done on this. In this analysis, quite a few effects of climate change interact with the potential Malthusian disaster. First of all, precipitation/rainfall is in steady decline.

Fluctuations in precipitation relative to average over time

Annual precipitation over time: the Case of Namibia

These figures show that this trend very clearly. In order to be able to conduct any meaningful agriculture, next to suitable soil, a sufficient amount of water is required – simple enough. If annual precipitation falls under about 400mm, doing agriculture becomes basically impossible and failed harvests are the direct consequence (“agronomic dry limit”). Over the course of the next decades, a rapidly increasing amount of regions will inevitably fall under this threshold like it´s the case in Namibia right now as evident on the graph above.

Also, if you look a little more closely, some years show only a fraction of usual precipitation, which has to do with droughts happening every few years due to the El Nina / El Nino climate dynamic that is also intensified by climate change. These ever-harder droughts create increasingly grave food shortages and hence regional famines.

The 2011 drought in the Horn of Africa, for example, affected 13 million people and led to extremely high rates of malnutrition, particiluarly among children. 

-World Bank Report: Turn down the Heat (2013) [Edit]

Edit: Furthermore, the likeliness of regional heat spikes will increase even if the Paris Agreement is met and hence threaten crop yields even more. As certain crops for staple food have a high sensitivity to temperature changes like maize or wheat, this in and of itself has the potential to cause failed harvest in a few regions as mean temperature changes of about 5 degrees could halve the yield in most extreme cases. Also, heat spikes will also be a concern for general health.

Under 2 degree warming, monthly heat extremes that are unusual or virtually absent in today´s regional climate are projected to cover nearly 25 percent of land areas by the 2050s, and unprecedented heat extremes are expected to cover up to 15 percent of land area in the summer.

-World Bank Report: Turn down the Heat (2013)

Study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture: Areas threatened by climate change

Due to rising temperatures and lower precipitation rates, the soil will erode and groundwater levels will fall under the level where roots of plants and trees can reach. As a consequence, the Sahara will expand well over a hundred kilometres south, a process called desertification.

Adding all of these factors together, illustrated by a graph from a recent study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture shows us that in the coming decades, vast parts of land will become unsuitable for agriculture and hence will force hundreds of millions of people to leave their homes.  

As a result, urbanization will happen a LOT quicker. Given that even now cities in the global south cannot cope with urbanization dynamics, we may see an increase in global slum population from 860 million to potentially over double that number in the coming decades, creating another kind of social diaspora (UN Habitat 2010).

Population density map

If we overlay the areas threatened by climate change with a population density map, we can see that vast parts of the population in Western, Central and Eastern Africa will be displaced increasingly heavily in the coming 20 years.

 

Edit: Due to climate-related reasons, productivity has already begun to shrink a considerable amount as a study by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) about the impact of land degradation shows below:

In the visualisation below, I illustrated the key trends and their impacts via a semi-arbitrary ample scheme:

 

 

Factor 3: Population

Which brings us to the last major trend.

Projection: Population Growth in Sub-Saharan Africa

Not only is supply declining, but demand rising significantly, more to the point: The population of Sub-Saharan Africa is set to double by 2050.

Even now, over 250 million people in the region are not having sufficient nutrition. Though theoretically the continent has physically enough to sustain itself in terms of food production; failing states, land grabbing, climate change and other trends even now cause shortages and just barely ensure the most basic supply in the rural parts. Without population growth; climate adaption, natural fertilizers, agricultural equipment etcetera may be enough to dampen the negative effect in supply and hence could avert this famine. But that will not be the case when the population doubles. The good thing here is that Sub-Saharan Africa still has sizable land reserves that could be used for agriculture, but it remains to be seen just how this ties into the other factors as increasing yield is physically possible even on regional levels but demands comprehensive measures to do so.

So to speak, an agricultural output of 1.0 in face of trends that would shrink it to about 0.7  could be maintained (edit: worst case; at least 0.9 is safe to assume for 2050), but that doesn´t sufficiently rectify the shortage when demand rises to 1.5 or 2.0 rather than remain at 1.0.

Edit: Like with the other presented factors, it is very hard for scholars to make an aggregate prediction about declines in crop yields. Estimates reach from 5 percent to over 30 percent and inherit constant controversy:

 

Estimated yield losses at mid-century range from 18% for southern Africa (Zinyengere et al., 2013) to 22% aggregated across sub-Saharan Africa, with yield losses for South Africa and Zimbabwe in excess of 30% (Schlenker and Lobell, 2010). Simulations that combine all regions south of the Sahara suggest consistently negative effects of climate change on major cereal crops in Africa, ranging from 2% for sorghum to 35% for wheat by 2050 under an A2 scenario (Nelson et al., 2009).

-IPCC 2014

 

As mentioned above, agricultural yield will, however, need to increase significantly in the coming years in order to ensure food security as demand will increase sharply.

In any case, if nothing is done or measures are not enough, these famines will happen, though there are too many variables and uncertainties to make an exact prediction as to when. We would need to make a comprehensive study even to make an educated guess. If I had to take a guess, I´d estimate 2035-2045.

And if this happens, about 500 million people will be displaced. As the region, then, cannot sustain the population, a similar amount may starve. At that point, we will see an enormous migration towards Europe which may give substantial rise to right-wing populists and create a form of quasi-social-Darwinistic policy on an international level. But only a fraction of people would have the option to attempt to flee towards Europe as a) the logistical capacities of migrant smugglers cannot accommodate for the sheer dimensions of migration  and b) intermediate destinations in  intra-continent migration routes may be shut down by states like Ethiopia which will be unable to spare the resources to accommodate the people passing through. They will be factually trapped.

Keeping in mind the vast territory of Sub-Sahara Africa, it is almost guaranteed that the actual "Malthusian famine" will be preceded by smaller, regional famines and crises (similar to the ones that are occurring right now) that will make the danger of this disaster even more scientifically irrefutable and the need to act increasingly pressing. Even our conservative minister for development in Germany, Gerd Müller, has admitted the real danger of such a large famine with large-scale migration on television. All in all, the portfolio of people in the development community warning from the scenario as described here steadily continues to rise.

In any case, nowhere nearly enough is done to address this. And even if we were to, say triple international capacities in humanitarian aid, it would still just comprise a tiny fraction of the type of intervention that would, at the point where is will be happening, be better characterised as a futile act of late minute desperation next to the fundamentally paramount dimensions of a disaster where the deaths of hundreds of millions of people will become almost inevitable. If we fail to act comprehensively and decisively in the coming years on an international level, it will be too little too late.

In numerous conversations with (former) politicians, the disposition to avert this, in my opinion, isn´t really there - or at least not to a sufficient degree. To create it in time, to then also implement a vastly complex action-agenda that is up to the task means to form an Advantgarde that climbs a very steep scientific and political mountain while time relentlessly advances against it.

Effective Altruism needs to be part of that Advantgarde. Cause areas here may be, among others,  fighting land grabbing,  agricultural policy or even helping to further the concept of a water pipeline as proposed by a Canadian NGO called "TAP". As my illustration indicates, water is an increasingly scarce resource in the Sahel, rectifying shortages in the dimensions that continue to present themselves, building this thing is the only way to even have a chance of saving vast parts of the people there.

It´s that black and white. It´s not some "patronising narrative" I articulate here, but a matter of physical laws and basic human needs, as at some point in the near future due to the trends pointed out, water and food supply will fall under the minimal demand to sustain the population. Other means of external supply, like deliveries per vehicles or further tapping into the groundwater, I checked with geoscientists, not doable on this scale and will only accelerate the actual problem that will be groundwater in agriculture.

Hundreds of millions of lives are potentially at stake here.

We as Effective Altruists should get behind that.

 

 

 

 

Scenario 2: A so-called "Peak Oil" scenario with a subsequent global economic crisis as postulated by the Club of Rome 

 

Around the same timeframe, scenario number two comes in, which is "doubly" problematic in that it may massively hinder resolving 1 and consequently claim even more lives on previously unconceived absolute scale.

Among various others that have presented "the case", THIS article from The Guardian makes a good to the central points. In the German-speaking realm, Prof. Dr Dirk Messner, chairperson of the German Development Institute, has come to very similar conclusions in an interview by "Entwicklung und Zusammenarbeit"(1-2/17 p.29).

 

So, what is this "Peak Oil" scenario?

It describes the point where global oil extraction has reached its technically feasible peak and is the due to steadily decline where it will fall heavily under global demand. Because nearly every economic sector worldwide hinges on oil to operate, we will see a new global recession, where the conduct of "business as usual" will be absolutely impossible.

Projection: Global oil extraction

Multiple studies are expecting global oil extraction to halve by 2040, thereby outstripping the projected demand by almost 2.5 times.

The issue, as part of a larger one, was first brought up by the “Club of Rome”, an MIT-based think tank founded in 1969. Three years after, their first report “The Limits to Growth” was published and rapidly gained widespread attention in the United States. However, politicians were quick to dismiss their arguments, especially the central one that economic growth is finite and that climate change is a direct result of a highly unsustainable economic system - despite the scientific soundness of the report as confirmed by other parts of the scientific community.

As mentioned, the central argument of the Club of Rome is that humanity´s economic systems are highly unsustainable to the point where either worlds ecosystem collapses and/or all feasibly extractable oil is used up, at which point, the world economy will find itself in major crisis, possibly even collapse and the very foundation of our existence may be threatened (edited).

In the 13 scenarios described in “The Limits to Growth”, entailing everything between a successful sustainability transformation of the world economy to “overshoot and collapse”, the data firmly points at the latter, which they (more realistically than cynically) called "standard scenario" in that despite some advancements, the global economy (and people) largely maintain "business as usual", oblivious to the threat which is thereby continually reinforced.

To quote the GEO-5 Report by the UN Environmental Program (UNEP):

Forty years ago, Meadows et al. (1972) argued in The Limits to Growth that unchecked consumption and economic growth on a finite planet were leading the Earth towards overshoot of its carrying capacity, which would be followed by major impacts on the global economy. Hall and Day (2009) looked back at the conclusions of this study and found that its warnings were generally correct. Turner (2008) compared historical data for 1970–2000 with scenarios presented in The Limits to Growth and found that 30 years of historical data compared favourably with key features of the business-as-usual scenario, which results in collapse of the global system midway through the 21st century.

Especially over the last few decades, humanity has consumed an unprecedented amount of fossil fuels, and that trend even continues to climb. Over this period, we have used up more fossil fuel that in all of history.

Global oil consumption over time

 

Furthermore, the global population is about four times larger than in the beginning of the 20th century and, depending on other macro trends, will likely exceed 9 Billion by 2050. Consumption rates and energy demand will henceforth increase and thereby further increase ecological stress.

Projection: Human population

 

 

 Systemic trends: Collapse of the global economy by around 2035

 

"So far, our calculations have not just been roughly what we estimated, but almost exactly what we estimated. And [The Paris Agreement] is not going to fix it."

-Graeme Maxton, Secretary General of the Club of Rome at CoR´s summer academy (which I was fortunate enough to attend) 

With current trends, earth cannot sustain the human population and is firmly headed toward a global economic crisis and a possible phase of civilizational collapse.

At current levels of consumption, even with current technological advancements that increase general efficiency, we will soon have used up all oil that is technologically feasible and energetically “profitable” to extract. "Western" lifestyle is only possible because of highly unsustainable consumption, global exploitation and ruthless immigration policies. But the key point is: The only reason that Earth can currently nourish 7.5 Billion people is our advanced agricultural equipment (enables around three times the yield relative to subsistence) , which largely, you may have guessed it, requires fossil fuels to operate. Without it, the agricultural yield would only be a fraction of what it currently is. And given the vast political and economic complexities, it seems unlikely that when such a scenario occurs that we would immediately seize to waste this precious energy and homogeneously prioritize as well as distribute whats left globally to ensure that agriculture won´t collapse and people wouldn´t starve as a result, though this obviously marks the worst case scenario.

 

And we are now starting to see the symptoms of unchecked growth and unsustainable economic conduct. But due to the interlaced personal interests of elites that penetrate every level in the global economy, how can this be stopped? Green Growth, despite all the hype it has seen, remains an illusion as well as decoupling Growth from material consumption. We need a shift in paradigm.

While internationally stricter measures to tax carbon emissions and perhaps even ration oil consumption via Global Energy Governance regimes are not unlikely, some governments may retain their usually egotistical stances about their "way of life" (yes that is an insinuation) and hence will keep quasi-obliviously wasting it in sans-suici-fashion that will irreversibly force the very lifeline of perhaps Billions of People over a threshold where subsequent food shortages will cause global mass starvation. The key point is distribution: While half of global oil may suffice to keep key industries and basic services running, it seems unlikely that we will distribute them in a way to enable this and hence specific countries may experience vastly more grave shortages that lead to economic collapse. As postulated by various political scientists, ecologists and others already, material shortages may cause resource wars which (for further reference see history books), bring out the ugliest sides of humanity once again.

 

Edit: Due to the rightfully controversial discussions triggered by this in the comments, I must stress again that a global ecomomic collapse is the worst case scenario following peak-oil.

What is safe to assume however is that, with current trends the global energy transition, despite the very welcome influx of solar energy (it sits at 3% in the global energy mix right now) and increased general efficiency, is not happening fast enough to sufficiently rectify the shortage peak-oil will create. The implications of this will be heavily determined by a variety of other factors that will decide whether peak-oil will create mere economic "inconveniences" that slow down the global economy for a certain time or throw it into a major crisis whose disruptive dynamics will seroiusly threaten supply chains and basic services.

I completely agree that the original LTG report is outdated especially as feasible alternatives in energy have emerged, but peak-oil nontheless remains a viable concern one should not underestimate.

This dilemma, just like the first one, is still avertable, if global societies muster up the collective courage to see it through. That said, we need a new era of global cooperation, we need CO2 levels to stop growing by 2020 and stop CO2 emissions altogether by 2050, we need to greatly reduce meat consumption, we need to tax emissions heavily, accelerate the transition to renewables by a factor of over three, ration fossil fuels via a global regime, transition to sustainable post-growth economies - list goes on.

 

Concluding remarks: A Global Transformation and the Politics of EA

 

This article is not about doom-saying, it is about making people realise that we need to get a global transition underway fast and comprehensively to ensure the well-being of current and coming generations. For this, we need ambitious transformative currents on an international level - and fast.

For a movement with an interdisciplinary and ultimately difficult goal such as Effective Altruism, it´s evident that, we need to be more nimble, branch out geographically and professionally, ensure adequate coordination and organisation AND maintain a clear focus of what requires immediate prioritisation. In the scope of pandemonium in international politics, startling dynamics of globalization and ever-present real-world complexities that EA factually operates in, we need have a sober overall vision of just HOW pressing specific cause areas are to one another relative to context and timeframe. Only then can we explore their delicate interlinkages and deduct action that is in and of itself effective.

Especially the perspective of political science and future research are rather underrepresented fields in the movement that can not only support specific goals through the insight it provides (as many decisions inside them demand to be passed through respective political institutions in some form or another, for which Political Science can point out how EA "agents" need to navigate these arenas) but at the same times provide a more systemic perspective to comprehensively embed our causes into a contextual framework that enables higher understanding of their interdependencies as just described.

I argue that it is an integral part of our undertaking to constantly re-evaluate to determine priorities in current but also longitudinal terms to gain an enlightened understanding of how we can shape the agenda of our movement in an evidence-based manner relative to the global political environment we engage in. Although looking at the statistics as pointed out HERE, most indeed identify as progressives, and the general narrative of EA tends to point in such directions - it is perhaps more about the ethical convictions that people in the movement hold dear that, conversely, “substitute” pre-existing political beliefs we hold. Either way, increasing engagement with “the political sphere” in EA will become seemingly inevitable.

Among others measures, Effective Altruism should:

  • ·       Further explorative research concerning global megatrends and facilitate scientific deliberation with experts in corresponding fields (such as the Club of Rome, development research and global cooperation research)
  • ·       Checking the feasibility of new cause areas such as humanitarian response, international agricultural policy advocacy or systemic analysis as possible cause areas
  • ·       Provide support for the Transafrican Water pipeline Project (TAP) and evaluate as to how it may be supported by the means and tools of the EA movement in order to get it on the political agenda
  • ·       Assist in increasing advocacy work for a resilience turn in international development to dampen the negative humanitarian effects of coming global and regional crisis
  • ·       Keep political factors and systemic global trends in mind by striving for a higher degree of inclusion of corresponding experts and representatives of political science
  • ·       Develop a holistic and integrated framework to determine ethical importance of cause areas relative to time and interacting factors

 

Finally, with such immense proportions of global human suffering on our doorstep, Effective Altruism in accordance with its core values, needs to respond. But how exactly? No one knows yet.

But what is sufficiently clear is this: To interact with these situational demands in such a way that the largest degree of suffering as a physical result of EAs collective action within them is averted, we need to concern ourselves with them thoroughly. We will need some form of an internal action agenda, meticulous operative principles and frameworks for some parts of EA as well as further internal research and deliberation in general – things that will considerably alter the way EA as a whole operates at the moment.

In whatever coming arenas of deliberation about the "compass" of our movement, the arguments articulated here need to be treated with the appropriate attention and embedded in the personal networks that represent this vast array of other factors that should determine this course. Factors that this author is only partially aware of yet longs to understand. I´m looking forward to the debates and the constructive critique in the comments and hope, if possible, to successfully instil these matters in the coming conferences and research practices.

 

Let´s navigate this pandemonium together!

Comments (17)

Comment author: Daniel_Eth 19 January 2018 11:48:01PM *  18 points [-]

Thanks for taking the time to write this post. I have a few comments - some supportive, and some in disagreement with what you wrote.

I find your worries about Peak Oil to be unsupported. In the last several years, the US has found tons of natural gas that it can access - perhaps even 100 years or more. On top of this, renewables are finally starting to really prove their worth - with both wind and solar reaching new heights. Solar in particular has improved drastically - exponential decay in cost over decades (with cost finally reaching parity with fossil fuels in many parts of the world), exponential increase in installations, etc. If fossil fuels really were running out that would arguably be a good thing - as it would increase the price of fossil fuels and make the transition to solar even quicker (and we'd have a better chance of avoiding the worst effects of climate change). Unfortunately, the opposite seems more likely - as ice in the arctic melts, more fossil fuels (that are now currently under the ice) will become accessible.

I think "The Limits of Growth" is not a particularly useful guide to our situation. This report might have been a reasonable thing to worry about in 1972, but I think a lot has changed since then that we need to take into account. First off, yes, obviously exponential growth with finite resources will eventually hit a wall, and obviously the universe is finite. But the truth is that while there are limits - we're not even remotely close to these limits. There are several specific technological trends in that each seem likely to turn LTG type thinking about limits in the near term on their head, including clean energy, AI, nanotechnology, and biotechnology. We are so far from the limits of these technologies - yet even modest improvements will let us surpass the limits of the world today. Regarding the fact that the 1970-2000 data fits with the predictions of LTG - this point is just silly. LTG's prediction can be roughly summarized as "the status quo continues with things going good until around 2020 to 2030, and then stuff starts going terribly." The controversial claim isn't the first part about stuff continuing to go well for a while, but the second part about stuff then going terribly. The fact that we've continued to do well (as their model predicted!) doesn't mean that the second part of their model will go as predicted and things will follow by going terribly.

I have no idea how plausible a Malthusian disaster in Sub-Saharan Africa is. I know that climate change has the potential to cause massive famines and mass migrations - and I agree that has the potential to increase right wing extremists in Europe (and that this would all be terrible). I don't know what the projected timeframe on that is, though. I also hadn't heard of most of the other problems you listed in this section. Unfortunately, after reading your section on peak oil which struck me as both unsubstantiated (I mean no offense by this - just being straightforward) and also somewhat biased (for instance I can sense some resentment of "elites" in your writing, among other things), I now don't know how much faith to have in your analysis of the Sub-Saharan African situation (which I feel much less qualified to judge than the other section).

I agree it is good for people to be thinking about these sorts of things, and I would encourage more research into the area. Also, I hadn't heard of Transafrican Water pipeline Project, and agree that it would make sense for EAs to evaluate it for whether it would be an effective use of charitable donations.

Comment author: RyanCarey 20 January 2018 09:56:31AM 6 points [-]

obviously the universe is finite

We can go only as far as to say that the accessible universe is finite according to prevailing current theories.

Comment author: Daniel_Eth 21 January 2018 03:11:34AM 1 point [-]

Yeah, I was referring to the accessible universe, though I guess you are right that I can't even be 100% certain that our theories on that won't be overturned at some point.

Comment author: Mirco_Vogelgesang 20 January 2018 12:05:24PM *  2 points [-]

Thanks for the feedback and for being so straight forward.

You are right that new technologies are key for economic transition. Solar power is now a lot cheaper and oil is going to be more expensive which by economic principles will cause a transition on its own and that is indeed slowly happening right now. Other technologies could greatly increase efficiency - but they are not yet there, same goes with CCS. And frankly I do agree that LTG and its model has issues, but the concern remains: Due to the fact that we have gotten a lot better at prospecting for oil fields, multiple studies confirm that with a high degree of certainty (whereas in the past any sort of certainty would have benn ignorance in that regard) we see that in 20 years we can only extract half of the amount of oil per year as opposed to now, while at the same time due to an ever-growing human population and global economy the energy demand will rise significantly. Right now, alternative energy sources are not being implemented fast enough, it would need to happen a LOT faster to rectify coming shortages that peak oil will create. Only then will demand be met and the global economy will not crash.

On the second point: There are multiple studies that confirm the severity of these factors like the IPCC, though I understand your reluctance in believing in my assessment here: With so many variables in play, we can hardly predict an exact timeframe or how severe this famine will get. But I may reiterate that this concern is legitimate due to the data presented and that a growing part of the development community, as well as many members of the German parliament and the European Parliament I discussed this with, share it. While we do indeed need more research on this, the main point is well established.

Comment author: MatthewDahlhausen 20 January 2018 07:27:11AM 10 points [-]

There is quite a lot to respond to here. I used to be of the same mindset on limits. I followed the The Oil Drum while it was still running and attend a few limits to growth conferences (the ones where attendees called themselves "Doomers"). After engaging with that material, I don't think the projections are accurate and think the catastrophizing is unwarranted. In particular, I don't think resource limits are likely to be a significant issue to humanity in the 21st century. Peak oil concern just isn't a reality; resource economics just doesn't work like that, and demand is elastic. The Oil Drum shut down partly in recognition that Peak Oil wasn't a useful concept anymore, and academics had long since departed from it.

Some more specific points: Factor 1 - Land Grabbing Can you provide citations and sources for the % of population this is happening to?

Factor 3 - Climate "As a consequence, the Sahara will expand well over a hundred kilometres south, a process called desertification." Increasing desterification is a concern, but 100 kilometers advancement across such a large continent isn't going to make a difference. "vast parts of land will become unsuitable for agriculture and hence will force hundreds of people to leave their homes." I would not call hundreds of people a humanitarian crisis. It's not clear that the issues you cite are enough to trigger the catastrophic famine and migrations you prophesize. People respond to droughts and other agricultural challenges in different ways - switching crops, using different water sources, relying on more imports, and finding other income. EA fund a lot of efforts that help this part of the world, malaria eradication and deworming in particular, which yield significant economic gains and life improvement. Development and increasing incomes improves resiliency. You are suggesting that despite these efforts, the factors you describe will overwhelm all of the health and development work being done. You present limited information, and will need more data, models, and economic models to justify the level of concern you are raising.

On Limits To Growth (LTG). Statements along the lines of "The LTG collapse scenario has been fairly accurate to date" imply that there are real world metrics mapped to LTG variables, and that the they expect the underlying model dynamics to remain roughly accurate. I've been able to find one published piece of work where someone explicitly details the variables they use to match to LTG. That report was by Graham Turner, the author of the Guardian Piece you cite. The report is not peer-reviewed, and was published by the institute where Graham is a senior fellow. It is based on a 2008 paper that was peer-reviewed. The author picked per capita electricity consumption and literacy rates to represent global "services per capita". This is misleading. One can pick almost any available variable remotely tied to represent "services per capita" that matches the shape of the LTG model, scale it, and claim that the "LTG standard run is close to reality". There are so many spurious correlations out there. Even then, the majority of trends are 20%, 50%, 100%+ off from the "LTG standard run". The report does not include statistical fit or calibration statistics. How can one meaningful track global pollution? Or non-renewable resources remaining?
It was never the intent of the work to be a predictive forecasting tool. The variables are lumped together proxies to represent categories of real world things, and the authors were explicit when they made the report that these did not represent real world variables; they were to just trying to show the dynamics of their theoretical model. Subsequent updates to the LTG model haven't been able to resolve which collection of real world variables get weighted together to match to which LTG variables. It's easy to cherry pick data to match the trend, especially if you aren't precommitting what constitutes a fit. And even if there is a good match to trends, that doesn't mean that a specific model is the correct representation of reality; there may be many models with wildly different assumptions of the dynamics that produce the same result. Vaclav Smil's review of the LTG is a longer deconstruction of the LTG modeling exercise and worth a read.

More importantly, Dennis and Jorgen (living original authors who I've met) repeatedly say these forecasts are not to be taken literally. Jorgen Randers has a new (2014) forecast which looks very different from the "resource crisis" scenario in the 1972 LTG model. Jorgen now claims the climate crisis is the key concern and the driving force in the model. Even then, he still assumes the same overall model dynamics, but doesn't detail the mechanisms for how the variables will actually influence each-other. For example, in using carbon emissions as his pollution variable, he assumes climate change will greatly increase overall death rates, overwhelming all factors that reduce death rates. There are many models out there (30+) that make assumptions on how climate change impacts human society in the future of which Jorgen's new work is just one. None assume overall death rate increases as Jorgen does, especially in the near term. Be wary of projections from a single model/source. The point is, it is misguided to get doomy about older model forecasts from one model that the authors say are no longer reflective of reality, especially when there is a much wider variety of more complex, robust forecasting models in existence today that have different scenarios.

Comment author: Mirco_Vogelgesang 20 January 2018 03:53:54PM *  0 points [-]

Thanks for the feedback and the food for thought it gave me to you as well. On LTG: Now I´ve read the papers by Turner and the one by Smith. The thing is, while I do genuinely concur with much of the critique by Smith; disputes about data accuracy, methods of aggregate analysis and the question whether their delicate interlinkages are representative of real-world complexities is the kind of debate that is bound to diffuse every time when you do things like QCA (Qualitative Comparative Analysis), systemic design, surveys or future predictions. Future research and macro-models are oversimplifications by necessity and therefore generate controversial, messy debates by nature. In that sense, it is logical and fruitful that we are having this discussion, which leads to the healthy challenging to existing pre-conception that one always loves to assert as something splendidly hermetically sealed.

That being said, next to the anecdotal parts, the legitimate critique raised by Smil and others about the methods of the first WW3 modelling I have read so far, it indeed shakes up the statements made but provides no concise line of argumentation that would actually invalidate them in any way. The way Smil likes to conclude from the methods being imperfect (which they certainly were especially when this mode of computer-based analysis was in its infancy at the time) to any conclusions thereby being equally invalid seems to constitute a similarly flawed process of proving one's point.

With what I wrote here, then, I did not assert to have delivered irrefutable arguments, but much rather fair approximations as to what, supported by the data, could happen in the future and that even the possibility of these scenarios being feasible should lead EA to investigate them more thoroughly. So while even current models lack any kind of satisfactory representation of real world-complexities, they meanwhile give us a fair approximation for a rough but feasible future outlook. Now, I´ve also had the privilege of meeting Randers, Bardi and Maxton last year, and they by no means claim any perfection but point out that the data, by applying common sense, points in a clear direction that is consistent with their models outlook: When we have already exceeded planetary boundaries by 2.5 times (again an arbitrary aggregate thing, fair enough), human population has grown to 7.5 billion and will grow further, when energy demand due to population growth and rising living standards increases further, when we can assume with relative safety that in 20 years we can only extract half the oil relative to now and that the current pace of global energy transition would need to be multiple times faster to rectify the shortges thereby created; that we need CO2 emmissions to peak in the next two years and completely stop them by 2050 in order to have a chance meet the 2 degrees goal to prevent catastrophic chain reactions, but actually CO2 emmission are continuing to climb as no country is yet determined to fulfill its climate commiments and when the tipping points is soon to be reached that even absruptly stoppin any emmissions could stop climate change anymore - THEN we do not need highly sophisticated models to be able to conclude that these trends will create multiple sorts of catastrophies with grave humanitarian implications.

Now on Scenario 1: First of all, you pointed me to a mistake in the article: The effects of climate change could displace hundreds of millions of people rather than hundreds. It is difficult to find good data on land grabbing, try the "Land Matrix" data bank which registers the areas affected, the actors and miscellaneous data. What we know is that the development community is saying that the dimensions are growing significantly right now and that millions of people have already been displaced. There´s little research on this (https://www.brot-fuer-die-welt.de/themen/fluchtursachen/fluchtursache-landraub/), exact percentages are therefore hard to come by: In Sudan, 23% of land is in the hands of foreign investors, in Sierra Leone 40%, in Gabon 85% (UNHCR), but a region-wide assessment has not yet been conducted to my knwoledge. So for further analysis, we would need more data which is hard to come by as any deeper investigation of this phenomenon is usually prevented by the very governments that facilitate it, which makes it easier for them to justify that by land grabbing the local population benefits due to modern agricultural equipment when in fact all those fields are being used to cultivate cash crops that are being exported as evident in the import/export data. So you are entirely right that I require more data to substantiate the extent of my claim!

"You are suggesting that despite these efforts, the factors you describe will overwhelm all of the health and development work being done." -In essence, yes. Development doesn´t necessarily enhance resilience, it may also create dependencies on aid and foreign imports, the international rural development budget currently sits at a measly 15%, hence climate adaptation is vastly underfunded to this very day. Conflicts in the region continue to sweep away decades of advancements in development in some cases. For real resilience, empowerment, rural development, environmental education, partially localising supply chains as well as other measures would need to be undertaken but continue to be severely neglected, which tied into a different debate about development effectiveness.

In a World Bank report form 2013, I found this though: "In Sub-Saharan Africa, by the 2030s droughts and heat will leave 40 percent of the land now growing maize unable to support that crop, while rising temperatures could cause major loss of savanna grasslands threatening pastoral livelihoods. By the 2050s, depending on the sub-region, the proportion of the population undernourished is projected to increase by 25-90 percent compared to the present." (http://www.worldbank.org/en/topic/climatechange/publication/turn-down-the-heat) And that mostly confirms that in some form or another, this Malthusian disaster ot at the very least more seroius famines are ought to happen.

In sum: Yes, the data that is currently available does not entirely verify the level of concern raised by me, but at the same time makes it very possible by what is known, and that even the rest of the data is vastly "better" than expected, we still can safely expect larger famines and hence large-scale loss of life to occur within the next decades. Hence it is not a question if larger famines are going to happen, but in what dimensions. And that very circumstance could dictate a heavy shift in priorities for Effective Altruism as a whole.

Comment author: MatthewDahlhausen 20 January 2018 09:42:06PM *  1 point [-]

The causal chain you propose is:

A) peak oil -> energy scarcity -> humanitarian crisis from ?

If not A), then:

B) emissions -> climate change -> agricultural loss -> humanitarian crisis from famine (with land grabbing exacerbating the crisis)

Let's jump to the crux of Rander's update to the LTG model, since that is the most recent work most closely attached to the concept. The fundamental collapse prediction comes from the pollution - death rate linkage that I mention in the previous comment. What basis is there to assume the overall death rate will increase? And how does the model explain the decreasing death rates in that part of the world? Is it based on a presumed energy scarcity? "when we can assume with relative safety that in 20 years we can only extract half the oil relative to now and that the current pace of global energy transition would need to be multiple times faster to rectify the shortages thereby created" Where do you derive the assumption that oil production will be cut in half in 20 years for reasons of scarcity? U.S. EIA forecasts relatively flat curves. And how do you distinguish good substitutions from shortages? Concerns about peak oil presume a fixed consumption per person, meaning no fuel substitution or demand elasticity. I think this is incorrect. Oil consumption is responsive to price, and even in the least elastic sector where it is used (transportation), there is still a tradeoff in size vs. efficiency for cars people buy. You can go on Gapminder and see how the trend in oil consumption per person can vary quite a bit over several years. Electricity consumption per person (what Turner used as his proxy for "services per person") has actually been decreasing in the U.S. because of large-scale efficiency. I expect we'll see more of that in other sectors including transportation, with lower energy use but greater energy services overall.

Given the substitution and efficiency arguments, and how none of the climate-economic models in IPCC's modeling exercises show an energy scarcity or pollution induced collapse, I don't think causal chain A you propose is a reality we can expect.

So that leaves causal chain B. The World Bank report is for a 4-degree temperature rise, and is by no means a fait accompli. I think what we do now looks a lot like what EAs are currently funding in the region - improving health and encouraging inclusive development. When people have greater incomes and are less dependent on agriculture, climate change effects are less severe. This is the assessment of a follow-up report the World Bank did to the 4-degree report which is worth reading: Shock Waves Managing the Impacts of Climate Change on Poverty.

Comment author: purpleskates 20 January 2018 10:48:46PM *  6 points [-]

"This very circumstance is not only true "here", but moreover with public discourse in general, making it clear that we as humans continue to have grave epistemic issues, not only in terms of recognizing that an issue exists but in treating it with the appropriate attention."

Issues of tact aren't relevant to your argument, but I would really recommend keeping stuff like this out of pieces aiming to convince people of cause areas. Anything extra that assumes your conclusion is true and then goes after people for not believing it is inevitably irritating, and besides, not actually relevant to the point that you're trying to prove.

I also generally think it's more productive when you have that feeling of shock at people's views to have the first impulse be to look to learn about why people believe what they do, rather than to try to lay out your case and see what comes back. Even if you're completely unconvinced by what people have to say about it, you'll end up in a position where you can advocate for your views in a way that's most likely to connect with the way that others are thinking.

Comment author: Jross 21 January 2018 10:16:48PM *  3 points [-]

GMO´s are being used at significantly larger scales Sub-Saharan Africa

Which crops and traits are you referring to?

I can think of Burkina Faso which cultivated bt cotton (quite successfully). South Africa has good acreages of gm crops (corn, soy, cotton).. but in Sub-Saharan Africa? I am not aware of any GE crops that are being planted commercially. (Trials of disease resistant banana.. maybe?)

Sorry for not addressing the rest of your post, but that jumped out to me as being very incorrect.

Comment author: Mirco_Vogelgesang 22 January 2018 06:00:30PM 2 points [-]

Thanks for pointing that out. I checked again and you are indeed correct to point out the reluctance of Sub-Saharan countries towards GMOs, hence this was an overstatement I´ll correct. Next to the countries you mentioned, GMOs are also being used in Sudan. Right now, Nigeria is advocating for increased GMO usage and it remains to be seen how that goes. Anyway, when writing this I had other countries in the global south in mind that use GMOs excessively.

Comment author: DonyChristie 20 January 2018 11:32:10PM *  2 points [-]

The political mobilization you are prematurely demanding to rectify the laundry list of concerns you present is first contingent on individuals like myself being persuaded by the veracity of your claims, which this post makes a lot of, the conjunction of which is exceedingly improbable. It would be easier for me to be persuaded if one concrete opportunity for intervention was first expounded on, such as this pipeline (or whichever is the best specific intervention here), its cost-effectiveness in creating QALYs (or your preferred measure), and how the resulting expected output of our contributions would compare to other potential effective interventions in a similar class of human-concernedness such as ALLFED, AMF, or biosecurity, or even more dissimilar ones like AGI alignment, animal welfare, etc, rather than presenting shock that we do not hold the same inside view on what is literally the most important thing to do with one's resources.

This recently made guide on introducing new interventions to aspiring effective altruists, if followed, will help achieve that. You can also post any calculations in this group and receive feedback. Effective Environmentalism might interest you as well. :)

Comment author: Mirco_Vogelgesang 21 January 2018 09:14:34AM 2 points [-]

Thanks for the info!

Comment author: kbog  (EA Profile) 22 January 2018 07:11:14PM *  1 point [-]

The political mobilization you are prematurely demanding to rectify the laundry list of concerns you present is first contingent on individuals like myself being persuaded by the veracity of your claims,

This statement is meaningless. Of course people need to be convinced if you are posting in order to convince them. "I won't do anything until you convince me" is a trivial statement. With this derogatory wording, it reads like you are just trying to rebuff the OP without actually addressing the post itself.

the conjunction of which is exceedingly improbable

The conjunction of all claims in any post of this length is exceedingly improbable. You could say this about any argument, including the very blog post that you linked, or your own comment. And in most cases, the conjunction of claims does not need to be true for the main point to be made.

It would be easier for me to be persuaded if one concrete opportunity for intervention was first expounded on, such as this pipeline (or whichever is the best specific intervention here), its cost-effectiveness in creating QALYs (or your preferred measure), and how the resulting expected output of our contributions would compare to other potential effective interventions in a similar class of human-concernedness such as ALLFED, AMF, or biosecurity, or even more dissimilar ones like AGI alignment, animal welfare, etc,

It would be easier, but there is a flip side to this, which is that you can't stop at demanding that everyone who presents you with an argument translate it into the specific language that you best understand.

Comment author: John_Maxwell_IV 10 February 2018 06:52:09AM *  1 point [-]

Re: desertification, do you have thoughts on http://www.superchimney.org/ ? (Discussion)

Re: peak oil, my understanding is that sustainable sources of energy are now price-competitive with fossil fuels.

If you are concerned with peak oil, the solution is simple: buy & hoard oil now. This accomplishes a few things. First, it increases the price of oil near-term, which creates a financial incentive to move our infrastructure off oil. Second, if you like, you can personally prevent anyone from burning the oil (since you own it) and it won't release any carbon into the atmosphere. Third, if you choose, you can sell the oil later on (after oil prices have risen) in order to smooth the transition to a post-oil society. Fourth, if your projections are accurate, you will make a tidy profit doing this (which can then be applied to EA causes). To add leverage to this strategy, convince rich speculators that they will make money by buying & hoarding oil.

Comment author: Mirco_Vogelgesang 11 February 2018 12:28:26PM *  0 points [-]

Geoengineering and thermodynamics are outside my field of expertise, so I am not really qualified to make a judgement about this Chimney concept - to me it seems questionable whether such a system could actually facilitate that kind of energetic heat exchange without the air reaching a state of equilibrium inside.

Yes, renewables are a lot more competitive now, but the transition towards them remains too slow to feather off peak-oil. In addition, they can´t compete in every sector (such as transportation, which contributes considerably to both fossil fuel consumption and CO2 emissions).

Anyhow, hoarding oil sounds like an interesting way to drive up its price and hence create economic incentive to speed up this transition but at the same time demands a very close look at how the global energy system works. It is designed to cover demand with supply very closely, hence there is little infrastructure for long-time storage and reserves. Consequently, it would need to be created. It also means getting into the social systems and control regimes of the global energy sector. It seems like an interesting idea which will demand quite a bit of research to assess its feasibility but is designed for the scope of civil-society and pre-existing neoliberal order and hence not set too high of a hurdle to get behind.

Also, advocacy to increase carbon emission taxes and oil tax may be cause areas here.

Comment author: John_Maxwell_IV 12 February 2018 06:44:12AM 0 points [-]

For what it's worth, I asked my brother (who has a physics degree) about the Superchimney site and he said he didn't think the analysis was that great.

Comment author: Denkenberger 27 January 2018 03:21:43AM 1 point [-]

Resource scarcity has been discussed on this forum before; see here and here. Generally slow changes are much less damaging that abrupt ones. A UK government report found that there is a ~80% chance this century of an abrupt loss of 10% of food production due to flood/droughts on multiple continents. And there are many other possible causes of an abrupt 10% loss in food production, including regional nuclear war (e.g. between India and Pakistan), volcanic eruption like the one that caused the year without a summer in 1816, abrupt regional climate change, etc. ALLFED is one of the few organizations working on these issues, while general resource scarcity and slow climate change have received many billion dollars worth of funding.