Daniel_Eth comments on Two critical Mega-trends that Effective Altruism has missed so far [Edited] - Effective Altruism Forum

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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.