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tom_sittler comments on Why are you here? An origin stories thread. - Effective Altruism Forum

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Comment author: tom_sittler 10 August 2018 03:07:48PM *  3 points [-]

In primary school, I wanted to defend nature (no doubt influenced by my dad, an environmentalist). I tried to create the "Environment Club" at my school. I still have some documents, in French, from that time (around 2006).

Here is an extract form a Microsoft Word document called "convincing.doc", last edited in March 2006:

Step n°1 : raise awareness about the destruction of the environment

Step n°2 : convince to act

Step n°3 : act

I made a leaflet explaining pollution and the greenhouse effect in Microsoft PowerPoint. It included slogans such as "Destroying our environment is destroying our future" and "acid rain: danger!", in WordArt, of course.

In another document called "PROJECTS.doc":

SECONDARY PROJECT OF THE CLUB

Because it is spring, there are many ladybirds in the school courtyard. So children capture them for fun: the club must prevent these children from capturing them, or, if they have already captured them, deliver them. For a tactic, see below. [...]

PRINCIPAL PROJECT OF THE CLUB

The principal project of the club is to convince a maximum number of people to environmentalism.

In "TACTICS FOR LADYBIRDS.doc":

  1. If they have put down the animal, take it and release it. But for that one must know if they have put it down and where. For this, place a spy who the children do not know, or know little.

  2. To make the children put down their ladybird: someone occupies them and proposes a pleasant game, and then advises them to put down their ladybird for the duration of the game (if needed, do not look at the hiding place, for this place a spy) [...]

  3. If the children are very small, tell them that ladybirds release a deadly liquid!

I no longer endorse lying for the greater good.

Skipping forward, when I was around 14 or 15 I read "Poor Economics" by Banerjee and Duflo, which I had seen my dad read. I immediately saw the appeal of randomised trials: Science! Plus, the book contained a good amount of Malcolm-Gladwell-style counter-intuitive "insight porn", which I was very fond of at the time.

The book made me realise the scale of global poverty. I was especially impressed by the possibility of substantially helping the very poor with only cheap interventions. I started having thoughts which I would now recognise as consequentialist: "You can help kids get vaccinated using just a bag of lentils (!); this is SO IMPORTANT! Why the hell isn't everyone talking about this?".

Eventually I continued on with my life. Perhaps I figured that if no-one around me cared about global poverty, it couldn't be that important. But there remained some cognitive dissonance.

When I was 16 my dad gave me "The Life You Can Save" as a gift. The book made an explicit, unabashed case for the beliefs which had been implicitly floating at the back of my mind. It was illuminating. I decided that helping the global poor was in fact the most important thing, other people's indifference be damned! Although I did check out GiveWell's website briefly, I didn't dive in deeper, nor did I become aware of other online EA materials. This must have been 2012.

(My dad later told me that he had hesitated about giving me "The Life You Can Save", lest it come off as too preachy.)

Because of inertia, or because these ideas take time to sediment, I didn't actually change my behaviour for at least another few years. At some point between the ages of 16 and 18, my interest in global poverty grew from a trickle to a flood. By the end of 2014, the year I left school, I was aware of Giving What We Can, and was reading more and more about EA. I devoured the websites of GiveWell, 80,000 Hours, and so on. I went vegetarian that year (although at first mostly for environmental reasons); then I volunteered remotely for The Life You Can Save in my first year of university in Paris. After I got an offer to go to Oxford in 2015, I decided to apply for a summer internship at Giving What We Can.

The internship, in the summer of 2015, was a mind-blowing dive into the EA community. Suddenly I was in an office full of impressively smart people who shared my values and my thinking style. I had found my tribe.