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Why don't many effective altruists work on natural resource scarcity?

If you ask a random sample of young educated people what they are most concerned about, future 'resource scarcity' - especially natural resources - often rates highly. About 10% of the people I have coached for 80,000 Hours have expressed strong interest in this cause. In this survey of EU citizens, three of the top ten problems related to resource scarcity (Poverty, Hunger And Lack Of Drinking Water, Availability Of Energy, and The Increasing Global Population) whie another two have some association (The Economic Situation and Climate Change).

This is not a problem that I would work on myself, nor one that I encourage other people to work on. To be clear, I don't think it is a terrible cause - there are some sound considerations in its favour and it's the best fit for some skill sets. But I want to briefly explain why I think it is too popular relative to its merits, especially given it is so attractive to people who agree with me about many other things. I think many of the reasons below are shared by others involved in effective altruism.

Here I will only discuss resources that are mostly privately owned (e.g. electricity, wheat or iron) and not environmental public goods to which access is not easily denied (such as the atmosphere or oceans). The latter is less self-correcting, and so the prospects for important and neglected work there look better.

Almost any discussion of this topic starts opens with the famous bet between Julian Simon and Paul Ehrlich. In the 70s Simon was a very public 'cornucopian', while Ehrlich was famous for predicting mass famines and resources shortages. Ehrlich was such a doomster he even thought there was a 50/50 chance that England would not exist by the year 2000. To their credit, both were willing to put their money where their mouths were, and so they placed a sizeable a bet on whether five metals would become more expensive between 1980 and 1990.

Julian Simon - the incorrigible optimist - won the bet, with all five becoming cheaper in inflation adjusted terms.

So I guess that's it - resources are getting cheaper and we can all relax about resource scarcity! Not at all.

Analysis of commodity prices over a wider range of time periods and resources showed that for around 60% of possible bets, Ehrlich would have won, as prices have shown some tendency to rise in the long run (or at least up until 2011, when that analysis was performed).

So if resources have some tendency to become scarce, should we start stockpiling goats and timber for the coming global dark age? No - that too is foolish.

My own view, admittedly as a dilettante, is that there is no strong reason to expect natural resources to become much more or less scarce over time. 

What kinds of factors could cause resources to become more scarce over time - by which I mean cause their inflation-adjusted price to rise?

  • A more rapidly growing human population.
  • A more rapidly growing ability to make productive use of natural resources (e.g. new inventions or factories).
  • Exhausting a stock of a non-renewable resources (e.g. oil in the ground), or damaging a slowly renewing one (e.g. eroding topsoil for farming).
    • (Note that most minerals can be re-extracted from the products they are used in, so never exhaust per se.)
  • Further regulations that make it harder to extract resources (e.g. to protect the environment, natural amenities, safety, and so on).
  • A higher real interest rate (if that surprises you, you can safely ignore it).
What factors could cause natural resources to become cheaper?
  • The reverse of everything above.
  • A growing amount of physical, human and intellectual capital dedicated to:
    • Extracting natural resources.
    • Finding ways to solve problems using fewer natural resources, more abundant resources, or other less valued resources than before.
    • Inventing new and better ways to grow/extract resources from the environment.
So will natural resources become more or less expensive? It could go either way, and depends on the balance of the competing factors above. Here are some tensions playing out right now:
  • We are running out of oil in the ground, but i) solar is getting much cheaper, and ii) we are finding ways to access fossil fuels that were previously unavailable.
  • We are running out of uranium, but people are trying to use alternative nuclear fuels like thorium.
  • A lot of soil is being damaged, reducing farm productivity. But we keep breeding ever faster-growing strains of important crops; finding ways to deliver precisely the amount of water plants need at the right time; and many other improvements besides.
  • We are running out of freshwater, but i) late in the century solar may make electricity for desalination cheaper than ever before, ii) we are developing more efficient water purification methods, iii) we have invented more efficient ways of satisfying human desires with less water if necessary, such as better shower-heads.
On balance, will these resources become more or less scarce in the medium term? I don't know, and I don't think anyone really can. Someone who confidently tells you almost all natural resources will become much more or less abundant should be treated with suspicion.

Isn't population growth a huge problem that is going to dominate this whole equation and massively drive up prices?

Probably not. Human population growth has been roughly steady at 80 million a year since the 70s. As a result, the percentage increase in the human population each year has fallen from 2.2% to 1.1% and is continuing to fall. If population growth didn't ruin us at 2.2%, it seems unlikely to do so at a much slower rate. Various authorities estimate that the human population will peak at between 10-12 billion later this century. While population growth is certainly a factor making natural resources more scarce relative to other things, there is no reason to think this one factor will dominate everything else. Keep in mind that more people, and rising levels of education, mean more ands and brains to work on farming, mining, and relevant R&D.

What about the huge run-up in commodity prices during the 2000s? Most commodity prices, for example those of coal, iron ore and oil reached unusually high prices at some point between 2000-2014. Since then things have completely reversed with one index of commodity prices halving between 2011-2016. There are a few things to note here:
  • This volatility is consistent with the view that there is no long-term trend - just significant random variation around long-term averages.
  • Much of this was driven by economic growth in newly industrialising countries like China and Brazil. While rising commodity prices became an important limiting factor to further growth, hitting that limit was a sign of growing prosperity and productivity rather than disaster.
  • While it created some problems, such as exacerbating poverty for some through higher food prices, the 2000s was still one of the best decades for human welfare, poverty reduction and peace ever recorded. (And it was good for poor farmers who sell what they grow!)
So let's say you accept my attitude that there is currently no overwhelming force pushing for either resource scarcity or abundance. What about the possibility of dangerous fluctuations, like the 2000s commodities boom and bust, but even more extreme? That could indeed happen if the factors above get out of balance. The future is very hard to predict, especially ahead of time. But fortunately there are a range of stabilising factors that lower the risk.
  • When prices rise, people and infrastructure are redirected towards getting more of a resource.
    • For example, currently only a small fraction of human resources are dedicated to extracting natural resources compared to most of history, during which around 90% of people worked on farming. Today, if necessary, we could double the share of (skill-adjusted) people and machinery allocated to growing and transporting food without it being that noticeable.
    • When a resource is scarce and valuable we are also willing to compromises environmental amenities, human safety and so on to get it.
  • When prices rise, people look for alternative ways of doing things that require less of a resource.
    • When OPEC increased oil prices, people invented and manufactured more energy efficient cars. If timber becomes scarce, we will make furniture from other materials, or make do with smaller house and less furniture. These attempts to substitute new materials for old ones, or wring more benefit out of a given amount of a resource, have been highly successful, as demonstrated by the fact that real resource prices have not increased much over time, despite a seven-fold population increase since 1800.
Because inventing new tools and opening new farms or mines takes a long time, new supply or lower demand is often delayed, allowing prices to remain high for years. But it does come, sometimes in excess.

Furthermore, all of the above happens if we merely anticipate future scarcity. Let's say forecasters look at the factors above and conclude that oil will become more scarce from 2020-2030. They publish their results and others are convinced. The following events are set in motion:
  • Expecting oil to become more expensive in the future, speculators drive up the price of oil in 'futures' markets.
  • Seeing this, organisations increase their stores of oil, or delay extraction, hoping to sell oil for a higher price in future.
  • This in turn drives up oil prices today.
  • Together these higher prices and new expectations prompt increased investment in new oil wells, more fuel efficient cars, solar energy, and much else besides, because these now all look like more profitable.
If people anticipate less scarcity in future, the precise reverse happens.

This process above is far from perfect - to start with futures markets often don't go out as far as ten years ahead, and it can be expensive to store resources for years - but it nonetheless provides a dampener to wild fluctuations in the available of a resource over time.

So, what are the good arguments in favour of working on resource scarcity? Well, the one I have outlined above!

The ingenuity of biologists, chemists and engineers is what has ensured that food, energy and construction materials can remain plentiful despite a growing number of people wanting more things. That will probably remain so in the future.

I see the biggest benefits of research on resource scarcity being two things:
  • Reducing poverty by making the resources ordinary people need cheaper.
  • Lowering the probability of a low-likelihood event in which resources suddenly become very scarce and law and order disintegrate. An example could be sudden climate change, or a destructive war. The more abundance and waste we have to start with, the more of a buffer we have in case we are unlucky and disaster strikes.
Some forms of research, such as that into how to produce lots of food in conditions of stress (e.g. low sunlight due to the use of nuclear weapons) seem particularly important in this regard. But all improvements in natural resource availability empower humans to make the future better in a broad way.

So why then don't I recommend this cause to people?
  • I think there are more targetted and effective ways to reduce poverty - all of the things GiveWell and others typically suggest.
  • I think there are more targetted and effective ways to reduce the risk of disasters that derail civilization - all of the things that the groups working on global catastrophic risks typically highlight.
  • It seems crowded rather than neglected.
If you view the problem broadly, the fraction of all human efforts going into tackling resource scarcity is in the order of 10%. If we get convincing signs that natural resources will become more scarce in the future, businesses and governments will have compelling reasons to step up investment further - something that is entirely practical. I would guess that not enough is going into basic R&D that will pay off in the long-term but can't be immediately commercialised. However, with so many businesses, academics, non-profits and governments taking an interest the shortfall doesn't seem extreme.

As a result, the risks and rewards don't seem large enough for this to be one of the top few global priorities for further investment.

This is a judgement call given an overall model of the world, a reasonable level of faith in human adaptiveness, and predictions about how various other technologies will advance in the future. As an example of the evidence that contributes to this outlook, years ago Stuart Armstrong produced some rough estimates suggesting natural resources were highly unlikely to be the key constraint on future human development in the long run.

Even if you ultimately disagree and decide to focus on this problem anyway, I hope the above casts some light on how I and many of my colleagues think about these problems, and helps with your future attempts to prioritise your work.

Comments (40)

Comment author: Evan_Gaensbauer 22 February 2016 11:14:32AM *  5 points [-]

I recently wrote on my own blog my treatment for the prioritization of global catastrophic risks (GCRs), in an essay called "Major Types of Global Risks". I'm very confident these priorities are as correct as I'll get, as their ones which the Future of Life Institute and other GCR/x-risk mitigation orgs have focused on, and Brian Tomasik independently confirmed he believes I got all the facts right.

Let me explain what this has to do with this post.

So why then don't I recommend this cause to people? I think there are more targeted and effective ways to reduce poverty - all of the things GiveWell and others typically suggest. I think there are more targeted and effective ways to reduce the risk of disasters that derail civilization - all of the things that the groups working on global catastrophic risks typically highlight. It seems crowded rather than neglected.

I see the biggest benefits of research on resource scarcity being two things: Reducing poverty by making the resources ordinary people need cheaper. Lowering the probability of a low-likelihood event in which resources suddenly become very scarce and law and order disintegrate. An example could be sudden climate change, or a destructive war. The more abundance and waste we have to start with, the more of a buffer we have in case we are unlucky and disaster strikes.

Between these two points you've made, I think you cover the same ground for risks from resource scarcity I covered in my own essay.

Such risks possibly include peak phosphorus, soil erosion, widespread crop failure, scarcity of drinkable water, pollinator decline, and other threats to global food security not related to climate change

Let's look at each of these in a bit more detail:

  • "Peak phosporus" is a concern similar to peak oil. Phosphorus is an element which is a major component of the most commonly used effective fertilizers, e.g., for growing food. This is a concern I heard about several years ago, and seems relatively neglected in circles related to environmentalism and the global community of those conscietiously concerned with resource management. Unfortunately, I know little about it. It seems, like peak oil, it's been a source of uncalibrated alarmism, perhaps again by scientists who discount to much the power of human ingenuity, economics, and technological development to solve these sorts of problems. I don't know (yet) of any information from markets on predictions of when phosphorus production/extraction will ebb or flow. After reading your post, I expect it's something which won't be too important, but I want to check that assumption by doing at least a shallow or medium-depth review of the topic. More information from Wikipedia:

Means of phosphorus production – other than mining – are unavailable because of its non-gaseous environmental cycle. The predominant source of phosphorus is phosphate rock and in the past guano. According to some researchers, Earth's phosphorus reserves are expected to be completely depleted in 50–100 years and peak phosphorus to be reached in approximately 2030. Others suggest that supplies will last for several hundreds of years. The question is not settled and researchers in different fields regularly publish different estimates of the rock phosphate reserves.

  • Soil erosion is a problem similar to peak phosphorus. That is, the ground from which we grow the crops we eat will become infertile for indefinite periods of time, all across the world. Of course, you cover this above as well.

A lot of soil is being damaged, reducing farm productivity. But we keep breeding ever faster-growing strains of important crops; finding ways to deliver precisely the amount of water plants need at the right time; and many other improvements besides.

Another (set of) improvement(s) or technology(ies) which I believe may hold more potential than the ones you've mentioned are vertical greenhouses combined with hydroponic or aeroponic agriculture. I also want to do a shallow review of soil erosion and ongoing solutions to it as a risk to figure out how much it should or shouldn't be prioritized by effective altruism, and environmentalists and humanitarians in general. If soil erosion turned out to be a direly risky catastrophe, more so than we think now, I would rate it as a greater environmental problem than most probable outcomes of climate change.

  • Crop failure seems something not to majorly prioritize at this point. I'm thinking we need to assess its potential to pose an engineered biosecurity risk. Brian Tomasik recently gave a treatment on how gene drives might impact animals on a wide scale; none of us have explored what impact gene drives might have on plants. This is an oversight I hope to investigate. I don't want to discuss engineered food security risks too much in public, though, as I believe that may pose a potential information hazard.

  • Water scarcity obviously relates to the classic concerns of effective altruism with poverty alleviation and the extreme suffering it often entails. However, I'm also concerned with its status as a potential GCR. In particular, I'm afraid water scarcity would be the primary step in a complex catastrophe, resulting into a major war. An example of how this might happen is tension between two nuclear states like Pakistan and India is exacerbated by water scarcity for their respective populations in the region. This is something the Future of Life Institute has on their radar. Water scarcity could be the powder keg which sparks a 'pink flamingo'. Actually, much of what I fear in terms of resource depletion as a GCR stems from this type of problem. I intend to research this in more detail.

  • Pollinator decline is a problem I need to learn more about myself. Even if effective altruism were to focus more on these types of GCRs, it appears it may not need to specifically mitigate pollinator decline as others are researching solutions, while scientists are still trying to figure out possible causes. Considering there's already a scientific focus on it, and it may take them several years to design solutions, it's not something effective altruism ought focus on in the near future.

Comment author: Carl_Shulman 26 February 2016 12:04:35PM *  8 points [-]

I've looked into most of these, and generally found them much less spectacular than the headlines suggested.

phosphorus production/extraction will ebb or flow. After reading your post, I expect it's something which won't be too important, but I want to check that assumption by doing at least a shallow or medium-depth review of the topic.

Also from wikipedia:

"Reserves" refer to the amount assumed recoverable at current market prices and "resources" mean total estimated amounts in the Earth's crust.[9] Phosphorus comprises 0.1% by mass of the average rock[12] (while, for perspective, its typical concentration in vegetation is 0.03% to 0.2%),[13] and consequently there are quadrillions of tons of phosphorus in Earth's 3 * 1019 ton crust,[14] albeit at predominantly lower concentration than the deposits counted as reserves from being inventoried and cheaper to extract.

Phosphate rock may have concentrations as ~20%.

The world phosphate industry has revenue of $45 billion. The agricultural sector accounts for ~$5 trillion of world GDP, ~6% of the total.

So if phosphate really became a dire limiting factor phosphate prices could go up by more than 100x. That provides plenty of room to move to rocks with lower concentrations of phosphorus than current targets. There are also tremendous opportunities for recycling, reduction (higher food prices reallocating production from animal agriculture to human consumption), and so forth.

In a world with cheap energy from solar power and fully automated manufacturing phosphorus supplies would be trivial.

Another (set of) improvement(s) or technology(ies) which I believe may hold more potential than the ones you've mentioned are vertical greenhouses combined with hydroponic or aeroponic agriculture.

The thermodynamics make this nonsensical for staple crops.

is tension between two nuclear states like Pakistan and India is exacerbated by water scarcity for their respective populations in the region

Spending on water is small as a portion of GDP, and there are much bigger issues at play, e.g. Kashmir. There is a lot of exaggeration about 'water wars' on this issue, although it is nonzero.

Pollinator decline is a problem I need to learn more about myself

Honeybee catastrophe is hugely exaggerated and not a serious threat.

Comment author: Alex_ 04 June 2018 05:27:23AM *  0 points [-]

Pollinator decline is a problem I need to learn more about myself

Honeybee catastrophe is hugely exaggerated and not a serious threat.

That is a very misleading statement referring to a very questionable article based on questionable interpretation of the US-specific statistics.

Just some of the questions and counterarguments in the comments to that same article:

  • "All the article talks about is the number of colonies. Is this representative of the number of bees? (Has the number of bees per colony remained relatively constant?)".

  • "...Making splits causes a yield of two weak hives, which is not the same as having the vigorous, healthy original hive. And just so you know, the splits the commercial folks are making from the survivors of pesticide, fungicide, herbicide exposure on industrial crops are the already weakened colonies that happen to make it."

  • "The typical Consumerist answer to a problem---"just buy more" bees and queens is not addressing the real problems which are decline in clean forage from toxic chemical exposure, lack of forage diversity, trucking bees all over the country, narrow in-bred genetics. The loss of all pollinators, as well as decline in overall ecosystem diversity from the same insults, is the real issue."

Speaking of some more credible sources:

For example: "...wild bees have undergone global declines that have been linked to habitat loss and fragmentation, pathogens, climate change and insecticides 3,4,5,6,7" (Nature, 2016).

"A growing number of pollinator species worldwide are being driven toward extinction by diverse pressures, many of them human-made, threatening millions of livelihoods and hundreds of billions of dollars worth of food supplies, according to the first global assessment of pollinators" (the UN, 2016, reports 2016, 2017).

By the way: "...field results confirm that neonicotinoids negatively affect pollinator health under realistic agricultural conditions" (Science, 2017).

Comment author: Carl_Shulman 04 June 2018 06:17:35AM *  1 point [-]

To be clear, bees are dying at high rates (and have been for some time) and this is imposing costs on agriculture, and that could get worse, and addressing that is likely a fine use of resources for agricultural R&D and protection.

But that is very different from posing a major risk of human extinction or civilization collapse via breakdown of the ability of agriculture to produce food (particularly the biggest, wind-pollinated, staple crops). That is the exaggerated threat which I say does not check out.

Comment author: Carla_Fin 02 March 2016 01:15:25AM *  0 points [-]

.

Comment author: Evan_Gaensbauer 29 February 2016 12:14:33PM 0 points [-]

Well, thanks. I guess this saves me a lot of time in research I thought I might need to do.

Another (set of) improvement(s) or technology(ies) which I believe may hold more potential than the ones you've mentioned are vertical greenhouses combined with hydroponic or aeroponic agriculture.

The thermodynamics make this nonsensical for staple crops.

Do you know another, better starting point I can use to learn about food security, then?

Comment author: Larks 23 February 2016 02:47:04AM 2 points [-]

it can be expensive to store resources for years

It's really cheap to store oil! Just leave it in the ground. Actually negative cost, as the extraction equipment will become cheaper, and you can earn a return on your capital in the meantime.

Comment author: RyanCarey 20 February 2016 08:38:04PM 2 points [-]

Someone who confidently tells you almost all natural resources will become much more or less abundant should be treated with suspicion.

I'd be interested in whether financial markets had something to say about this question though.

Comment author: Robert_Wiblin 20 February 2016 08:53:38PM 1 point [-]

I'm using current prices as the key indication of how scarce something is (and is expected to be in the future). So if the price goes up in financial markets, it has become more scarce.

So I completely agree. If I want the best guess about how scarce something will be in future I look at commodity and futures markets. It's far from perfect, and it won't always indicate the size of future risks, but it's much more reliable than any one person's view.

Comment author: Alexander 21 February 2016 06:46:58AM 1 point [-]

Does anyone know if futures markets for crude oil exist on more than a 10-year time frame?

Comment author: PeterMcCluskey 22 February 2016 05:11:16PM 1 point [-]

On the Nymex, they currently go out to Dec 2024. That contract appears to trade less than once a week.

There might be occasional contracts for more distant years traded between institutional investors that don't get publicly reported, but the low volume on publicly traded contracts suggests people just aren't interested in trading such contracts.

Comment author: Robert_Wiblin 21 February 2016 02:36:14PM 0 points [-]

The longest timescale I've ever found on Bloomberg is 5 years, but it wouldn't surprise me if people were trading contracts further out, with the prices not being posted on free websites.

Comment author: RyanCarey 20 February 2016 09:40:09PM 1 point [-]

Right, and I think options markets might go a step further and quantify future risks.

Comment author: Arepo 21 February 2016 10:59:21AM 1 point [-]

Julian Simon, the incorrigible optimist, won the bet - with all five becoming cheaper in inflation adjusted terms.'

I hope he paid Stanislav Petrov off for that.

Less glibly, I lean towards agreeing with the argument, but very weakly - it seems far too superficial to justify turning people away from working on the subject if that's where their skills and interests lie.

In particular in seems unclear that economic-philosophical research into GCR and X-risk has a greater chance of actually lowering such outcomes than scientific and technological research into technologies that will reliably do so once/if they're available.

Yes, people can switch from one resource to another as each runs low, but it would be very surprising if in almost all cases the switch wasn't to a higher-hanging fruit. People naturally tend to grab the most accessible/valuable resources first.

Perhaps the global economy is advancing fast enough or faster than enough to keep pace with the increasing difficulty of switching resource-bases, but that feels like a potential house of cards - if something badly damages the global economy (say, a resource irreplaceably running out, or a project to replace one unexpectedly failing), the gulf between several other depleting resources and their possible replacements could effectively widen. The possible cascade from this is a GCR in itself, and one that numerous people seem to consider a serious one. I feel like we'd be foolish to dismiss the large number of scientifically literate doomsayers based on non-expert speculation.

Comment author: Robert_Wiblin 21 February 2016 02:53:09PM *  4 points [-]

I'll start with the most important first:

"Perhaps the global economy is advancing fast enough or faster than enough to keep pace with the increasing difficulty of switching resource-bases, but that feels like a potential house of cards - if something badly damages the global economy (say, a resource irreplaceably running out, or a project to replace one unexpectedly failing), the gulf between several other depleting resources and their possible replacements could effectively widen."

Yes, I acknowledge that is a risk. Personally I have never found a persuasive case that this will probably happen for any particular pressing need we have. But, as I say, the future is uncertain and even if everyone thinks it's unlikely, we could be wrong. So work to make a bigger buffer does have value.

But the question I am concerned with is whether it's the most valuable problem to work on. The considerations above, and current prices for such goods make me think the answer is no.

"The possible cascade from this is a GCR in itself, and one that numerous people seem to consider a serious one. I feel like we'd be foolish to dismiss the large number of scientifically literate doomsayers based on non-expert speculation."

Certainly there are many natural scientists who have that attitude. I used to place more stock in their pronouncements. However, three things reduced my trust:

  • Noticing that market prices - a collective judgement of millions of informed people in these industries - seemed to contradict their concerns. Of course anyone could be wrong, but I place more weight on market prices than individual natural scientists who lack a lot of relevant knowledge.
  • Many of these natural scientists show an astonishing lack of understanding of economics when they comment on these things. This made me think that while they may be good at identifying potential problems, they cannot be trusted to judge our processes for solving them, because academic specialisation means they are barely even aware of them.
  • Looking into specific cases and trends (e.g. food yields or predictions of peak oil) and coming away unconvinced the data supports pessimism.

I think the pessimistic take here is a contrarian bet. It may be a bet worth making, but it has to be compared to other contrarian bets that could be more compelling.

"it seems far too superficial to justify turning people away from working on the subject if that's where their skills and interests lie."

My comments in the piece are that I merely don't encourage people to work on it, and that it is the best fit for some people's skills.

"In particular in seems unclear that economic-philosophical research into GCR and X-risk has a greater chance of actually lowering such outcomes than scientific and technological research into technologies that will reliably do so once/if they're available."

The contrast I intended to draw there is with research into non-resource shortage related GCRs - particularly dangers from new technologies.

"Yes, people can switch from one resource to another as each runs low, but it would be very surprising if in almost all cases the switch wasn't to a higher-hanging fruit. People naturally tend to grab the most accessible/valuable resources first."

It's true that the fruit we will switch to are higher now. But technological progress is constantly lowering the metaphorical tree. In some cases the fruit will be higher at the future time, in other cases it will be lower. My claim is that I don't see a reason for it to be higher overall, in expectation.

Comment author: Arepo 22 February 2016 06:30:16PM *  2 points [-]

But the question I am concerned with is whether it's the most valuable problem to work on. The considerations above, and current prices for such goods make me think the answer is no.

Sure. I mean, we basically agree, except that I feel much lower confidence (and anxiety at the confidence with which non-specialists make these pronunciations). Going into research in general is something that I've mostly felt more pessimistic about as an EA approach than 80K are, but if someone already partway down the path to a career based on resource depletion showed promise and passion in it, I'd think it plausible it was optimal for them to continue.

Certainly there are many natural scientists who have that attitude. I used to place more stock in their pronouncements. However, three things reduced my trust:

  • Noticing that market prices - a collective judgement of millions of informed people in these industries - seemed to contradict their concerns. Of course anyone could be wrong, but I place more weight on market prices than individual natural scientists who lack a lot of relevant knowledge.

I would probably trust the market over a single scientist, but I would trust the collective judgement of a field of scientists over the market. I don't see what mechanism is supposed to make the market a reliable predictor of anything if not a reflection of the scientific understanding of the field with individual randomness mostly drowned out.

  • Many of these natural scientists show an astonishing lack of understanding of economics when they comment on these things. This made me think that while they may be good at identifying potential problems, they cannot be trusted to judge our processes for solving them, because academic specialisation means they are barely even aware of them.

I've seen the same, but my own sense is that the reverse problem - economists having an astonishing lack of understanding of science - is much more acute. Also, I find scientists more scrupulous about the limits of their predictive ability. To give specific examples two of which are by figures close to the EA movement, Stephen Landsburg informing Stephen Hawking that his understanding of physics is '90% of the way there', Robin Hanson arguing without a number in sight that 'Most farm animals prefer living to dying; they do not want to commit suicide' and therefore that vegetarianism is harmful, and Bjorn Lomborg's head-on collision with apparently the entire field of climate science in The Skeptical Environmentalist.

  • Looking into specific cases and trends (e.g. food yields or predictions of peak oil) and coming away unconvinced the data supports pessimism.

I can't opine on this, except that I still feel greater epistemic humility is worthwhile. If your conclusions are right, it seems worth trying to get them published in a prominent scientific journal (or if not by you then by an academic who shares your views - and perhaps hasn't already alienated the journal in question) - even if you don't manage, one would hope you'd get decent feedback on what they perceived as the flaws in your argument.

It's true that the fruit we will switch to are higher now. But technological progress is constantly lowering the metaphorical tree. In some cases the fruit will be higher at the future time, in other cases it will be lower. My claim is that I don't see a reason for it to be higher overall, in expectation.

Perhaps, but I don't feel like you've acknowledged the problem that technological progress relies on technological progress, such that this could turn out to be a house of cards. As such, it needn't necessarily be resource depletion that brings it crashing down - any GCR could have the same effect. So work on resource depletion provides some insurance against such a multiply-catastrophic scenario.

Comment author: Ben_Todd 23 February 2016 03:46:21AM 2 points [-]

I don't think Rob is aiming this piece at people who are already part way down a research track and have a passion for this area.

Rather, we've seen that a large fraction of socially concerned grads (Rob estimates 10% of ppl he's coached) think this is a pressing issue they should consider going into; before having done any research or commited to a cause. This piece is aimed at them.

Comment author: Robert_Wiblin 22 February 2016 07:13:35PM *  2 points [-]

That seems pretty reasonable except I take issue with one thing:

"I don't see what mechanism is supposed to make the market a reliable predictor of anything if not a reflection of the scientific understanding of the field with individual randomness mostly drowned out. ... I've seen the same, but my own sense is that the reverse problem - economists having an astonishing lack of understanding of science - is much more acute."

People generating these market prices are not principally economists. I don't think economists have any particular wisdom about the natural sciences but that's not what I'm relying on.

Often people with detailed knowledge of an industry who have a better shot at forecasting e.g. future oil output, are the ones trading. They take a great interest in what scientists and engineers say, if it's credible, because it can help them make money. Where the prices traders generate are inconsistent with what an outspoken pessimist or optimist says, I downgrade its reliability because they haven't yet managed to persuade people with money on the line.

An economist need know nothing at all about the details of US politics to know that establishing a liquid prediction market can get them good information about the likely outcome of an election.

By contrast a natural scientist who doesn't know how businesses respond to resource scarcity is in deep trouble trying to forecast the likely outcome because they lack half the picture.

Now this is no guarantee, because prices often end up being misjudged. But it's the best thing I can see to go on for the modal scenario.

Consistent with that, if resource prices and futures spike, I will upgrade this cause area a lot.

Comment author: Arepo 22 February 2016 05:53:38PM 1 point [-]

(reposted from slightly divergent Facebook discussion)

I sometimes wonder if the 'neglectedness criterion' isn't overstated in current EA thought. Is there any solid evidence that it makes marginal contributions to a cause massively worse?

Marginal impact is a product of a number of factors of which the (log of the?) number of people working on it is one, but the bigger the area the thinner that number will be stretched in any subfield - and resource depletion is an enormous category, so it seems unlikely that the number of people working on any specific area of it will exceed the number of people working on core EA issues by more than a couple of orders of magnitude. Even if that equated to a marginal effectiveness multiplier of 0.01 (which seems far too pessimistic to me), we're used to seeing such multipliers become virtually irrelevant when comparing between causes. I doubt if many X-riskers would feel deterred if you told them their chances of reducing X-risk was comparably nerfed.

Michael Wiebe commented on my first reply:

No altruism needed here; profit-seeking firms will solve this problem.

That seems like begging the question. So long as the gap between a depleting resource and its replacement is sufficiently small, they probably will do so, but if for some reason it widens sufficiently, profit-seeking firms will have little incentive or even ability to bridge it.

I'm thinking of the current example of in vitro meat as a possible analogue - once the technology for that's cracked, the companies that produce it will be able to make a killing undercutting naturally grown meat. But even now, with prototypes appearing, it seems too distant to entice more than a couple of companies to actively pursue it. Five years ago, virtually none were - all the research on it was being done by a small number of academics. And that is a relatively tractable technology that we've (I think) always had a pretty clear road map to developing.

Comment author: Denkenberger 03 March 2016 02:18:43PM *  0 points [-]

In my comments on this page, I argue that we already have the technology to sustainably support 10 billion people at the US standard of living. I do want to turn this into a paper, but I have been prioritizing more serious GCRs (I would be interested in finding a collaborator on the resource paper). Of course even if we have the technology, it could be expensive. I also discuss the Limits to Growth books that I think have done the most sophisticated modeling of resource constraints. They predict a crash, but I am skeptical.

Comment author: Chriswaterguy 21 February 2016 08:43:00AM 1 point [-]

"We are running out of uranium" – we have 200 years supply at current rates, and if we started using a lot more and prices went up then that would make breeder reactors, for example more financially viable. These use less than 1 % of the uranium needed for current LWRs. http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-long-will-global-uranium-deposits-last/

Financially viable thorium reactors would be awesome, but we don't have to wait for that. Uranium is not running out – at least not in the simple and obvious meaning of "running out".

Comment author: Robert_Wiblin 21 February 2016 09:06:22AM 2 points [-]

Thanks for the correction - I recall reading that uranium would be exhausted within the century but looks like that was a bad source.

Given that timeline solar energy or some other material will presumably be able to displace uranium before we run out.

Comment author: Alexander 21 February 2016 10:08:45PM 0 points [-]

Stuart Armstrong relies on the price of solar continuing to drop, right? Maybe it will, but I think we would be wise to plan for if it does not. Plus, what about storing the energy? Overall, I would just note that fossil fuels have been proved to be very useful but (without new tech) they will eventually become scarce. So I do think stockpiling them would be good if it could be done securely. But the storage time needed might be extremely long, maybe hundreds of years. On whether any sort of coordination or planning would be effective over that that long a period, I am not too optimistic.

Comment author: Robert_Wiblin 22 February 2016 09:24:17AM 1 point [-]

It does rely on solar and storage becoming cheaper. They would have to progress much slower than the trend for us to be seriously energy constrained later this century though:

http://www.vox.com/2016/2/5/10919082/solar-storage-economics

Comment author: Alexander 22 February 2016 05:29:44PM 0 points [-]

I happen to be quite skeptical of predicting science. Do you know what sort of conclusion you would reach about this post's topic if we assume that, for the foreseeable future, science will not advance much? Or, a case of scientific stagnation.

Comment author: Robert_Wiblin 22 February 2016 05:42:59PM *  1 point [-]

Clearly then we would be more likely to face a range of problems, though still have the standard options of increasing the relevant capital stock or redirecting more people to producing natural resource. As I noted it is practical to expand these 2-3 fold if truly necessary.

Long-term stagnation is as much a prediction that needs to be grounded in evidence as any other - and one I think has a low probability indeed.

Comment author: Alexander 22 February 2016 07:18:49PM 0 points [-]

How low? And, the issue is not so much that stagnation will definitely happen but that other assumptions are random noise and we cannot do any better than to assume stagnation.

If we assume a high chance of stagnation, and also that all generations are morally equal, then I think we should cut back fossil fuel use, and employ it only when greatly needed, in order to maximize the total usefulness to future generations. That is, it's better that 50 generations use 1/50 the fuel for vital, truly essential purposes rather than one generation burning everything.

Yes you can increase capital stock and devote more people. But under these assumptions, maybe more resource production, or extraction, is actually neutral or even bad.

One consideration is how much society would be harmed if we ran out of various resources. That's the limiting case. Here's a Quora question on fossil fuels that might be a start.

There seems to be a literature on intergenerational equity and exhaustible resources-probably there are answers there, if a person dug enough. :)

Comment author: Denkenberger 29 February 2016 01:15:28AM 1 point [-]

That was an interesting Quora question of what would happen if we knew fossil fuels were going to run out in 10 years. A current research project of mine is the more extreme scenario of industry being disabled all of a sudden. This could be due to an extreme solar storm, multiple high-altitude electromagnetic pulses, or a super computer virus (Stuxnet on steroids) taking out electricity. I am looking into whether it would be technically feasible to save nearly everyone and civilization in this scenario (followup to the book that Rob cited on producing food in conditions of stress).

Comment author: Robert_Wiblin 22 February 2016 09:50:26PM *  1 point [-]

"but that other assumptions are random noise and we cannot do any better than to assume stagnation."

Why on Earth would the number 0 be the most probable estimate of future productivity growth? There is no reason at all to think it is.

A much better forecasting method than picking 0, or 1, or 10 just because they are round numbers, is to expect that the future will, on average, look like the long-run average of the past (giving greater weight in the average to more recent history).

I think the odds of long-term technological stagnation or worse - in the absence of some catastrophe which renders it irrelevant, like nuclear war - is around 1%.

The only way we can stagnate is if i) we've run out of possible useful improvements to make to all of our products at once, which would be an astonishing thing, or ii) we stop trying to improve our products, which is also exceedingly unlikely barring a massive social upheaval.

Comment author: Alexander 22 February 2016 11:50:24PM *  0 points [-]

[deleted]

Comment author: Robert_Wiblin 23 February 2016 07:40:10AM *  1 point [-]

Can you flesh out what you mean by technological stagnation? The best measure of technological advancement I am aware of is multi-factor productivity growth (in frontier countries).

"So at some point, to say anything useful I think you have to assume that growth tapers off or stops."

Sure, but that's because we should eventually run out of new useful technologies to invent, which is likely thousands of years into the future.

"I also don't really see how the odds can be as low as 1%."

As I said the only way I can see this happening is some kind of global catastrophe, which then would become the principal concern. What short of a disaster could cause people to stop trying to research new ways of doing things, and succeeding in some cases?

Comment author: Alexander 24 February 2016 05:00:45AM *  0 points [-]

Any useful model does not try to analyze growth hundreds or thousands of years in the future. It is not really important for this topic, but anyway you can read the link in my last message if you're interested.

On the definition of scientific stagnation-a decent measure would be that productivity growth stops. (Although maybe better engineering can also improve productivity without better science, but I don't know if this makes a difference.)

Why is there a need for a disaster? Maybe cheap renewable energy turns out to be too hard a problem. Maybe more big scientific discoveries in general is too hard. That would be a departure from trends but trends have not continued enough for us to have absolute confidence in them.

But I might not actually differ with your 1% figure by too much-I'd guess a 5% chance that renewable energy prices now are roughly as low as they will ever be.

Even if you say 1%, however, it's not clear to me that enough is being done on this topic, since if that 1% materializes, the waste could be huge.

Comment author: Robert_Wiblin 24 February 2016 06:06:45AM 2 points [-]

"But I might not actually differ with your 1% figure by too much-I'd guess a 5% chance that renewable energy prices now are roughly as low as they will ever be."

I'd be willing to bet you $100 at 20-1 odds that levelized costs of solar electricity generation are cheaper in fifteen years. Would you be interested to specify the bet more closely?

"if that 1% materializes, the waste could be huge."

On the other hand if the 99% outcome materialises, the waste will also be huge (not using a resource when it was useful, and leaving it until later when it's obsolete).

Comment author: ChristianKleineidam 20 February 2016 02:10:57PM 0 points [-]

A lot of the conflict in the Arab spring was driven by increased food priceses. If we could find a way to produce food cheaper, the risk of conflicts like the Syrian conflict would be reduced. Food makes up a high percentage of the budget of poor people. If it's praise can be reduced that would have similar effects than GiveDirectly. Poor people would have more free money.

I don't think we need evidence of resources getting more scarce to justify working on resource production.

If Helion get's fusion to work, we will have cheaper electricity and that will decrease production costs for lot's of goods. That means it's cheaper to produce those goods for poor people. It's also cheaper to produce goods for rich people.

When it comes to metals like iron, astroid mining could drastically reduce costs and thereby create wealth.

The historical track record of people making fortunes in resources also indicates that it's a field where individuals can produce large amounts of value for society.

Comment author: Robert_Wiblin 20 February 2016 06:12:30PM 1 point [-]

"A lot of the conflict in the Arab spring was driven by increased food prices."

That sounds plausible, but what's the evidence that it's true? Determining cause and effect in a system like that seems quite tricky.

"If we could find a way to produce food cheaper, the risk of conflicts like the Syrian conflict would be reduced."

Are there any studies seeing if one predicts the other in a time series?

"I don't think we need evidence of resources getting more scarce to justify working on resource production."

As a species we already are working on resource production though - a lot. My claim is that a) the stronger the signals of future scarcity, the more we should invest in trying to produce even more; b) there already exists a system that reliably does this. I think both claims are very strong.

"The historical track record of people making fortunes in resources also indicates that it's a field where individuals can produce large amounts of value for society."

I wouldn't deny you can do good producing timber, food, etc. But what's the evidence that entrepreneurs working on commodities make more money than people contributing to other products?

Comment author: ChristianKleineidam 20 February 2016 10:59:19PM *  4 points [-]

That sounds plausible, but what's the evidence that it's true? Determining cause and effect in a system like that seems quite tricky.

I think there are multiple arguments why we can believe that to be true. Very corrupt political systems like Iran make the political decision to subvention food prices. Do they do it, because those governments want to be nice to their population? Maybe, maybe the also recognize that the government loses stability if it's population doesn't have enough to eat because food prices rise.

While citation by authority isn't prove it, Peter Thiel is well regarded: I think the Arab Spring, I think the fundamental driver for that was the food prices went up 50 percent and people were going to starve and I think it’s smug and complacent to pretend that it was anything other than that.

I opened a question on Skeptics.Stackexchange that might produce further evidence.

As a species we already are working on resource production though - a lot.

Overall we are certainly spending resources on resource production. That however doesn't mean that there aren't areas in resource production that are underfunded.

Sam Altman decided two years ago that resource production is an important field. What did he do? He went out and talks to people in the field of nuclear energy. Helion became a YCombinator company and Peter Thiel's Mithril Capital fund funded Helion. Sam Altman then went on to be chairman of the board of Helion. Sam Altman did same thing with uPower.

Sam Altman isn't chairman of the board of any other YCombinator company. I'm not sure whether Sam Altman self-labels as EA but I think in practice he very much lives the EA values.

I think Sam Altman did make that decision because he rightly thought that the projects of Helion and uPower were otherwise neglegted.

Sam Altman argues in a post about Energy: I think a lot about how important cheap, safe, and abundant energy is to our future. A lot of problems—economic, environmental, war, poverty, food and water availability, bad side effects of globalization, etc.—are deeply related to the energy problem. I believe that if you could choose one single technological development to help the most people in the world, radically better energy generation is probably it. Throughout history, quality of life has gone up as the cost of energy has gone down. [...]

In addition to Peter Thiel and Sam Altman there's also Elon Musk. Both Solar City and Tesla are about creating a sustainable energy future.

SpaceX isn't directly about resource production but it's about spending a lot less resources for going to space. Indirectly it might further be about resource production via asteroid mining in the future.

Bill Gates considers nuclear energy also a valuable cause.

I wouldn't deny you can do good producing timber, food, etc. But what's the evidence that entrepreneurs working on commodities make more money than people contributing to other products?

I don't think that Peter Thiel, Sam Altman, Bill Gates or Elon Musk focus on producing commodities when they invest resources into the cause of energy scarcity.

If you look at more efficient food production I don't think RowBot's Kent Cavender-Bares focuses on commodity production either.

PS: (this forum uses markup. If you start a line with > it formats quotes nicely.

Comment author: kbog  (EA Profile) 22 February 2016 09:31:39PM *  1 point [-]

Peter Thiel is widely regarded as a businessman, not an economist or IR theorist.

All your examples are just businessmen, anyway. There's entrepreneurs in every sector and again it's still not clear that energy is the most lucrative field.

Comment author: ChristianKleineidam 24 February 2016 03:06:03PM 0 points [-]

Peter Thiel is widely regarded as a businessman, not an economist or IR theorist.

Why do you think an economist understands more about the world than a businessman that makes his fortune based on predictions about how things evolve? He might not do IR theory but he's a member of the steering committee of Bilderberg which makes him actively involved in interantional relations.

As far as Peter Thiel being just a businessman I think it would be likely that this forum wouldn't exist the way it does if it Peter Thiel hadn't donated money for causes he considers good for society.

Lastly the list of people isn't random. If you show any person in this community the list of those names and ask what they have in common the likely answer wouldn't be that they are all invested into energy.

It might be that they are all smart enough to be public about treating AI risk at a big danger. They are all people who rationally thought about how to do good in the world.

Comment author: kbog  (EA Profile) 24 February 2016 07:41:57PM *  0 points [-]

Why do you think an economist understands more about the world than a businessman that makes his fortune based on predictions about how things evolve?

Because financiers look at things in the short term - they look for fluctuations in prices and policies over a scale of days, months or <1 decade at most. What we're doing here is something that has basically nothing to do with the vagaries of the market and everything to do with long term economic trends in resource production and consumption.

He might not do IR theory but he's a member of the steering committee of Bilderberg which makes him actively involved in interantional relations.

Well, great. Sure the guy is smart, but he's no better than the scores or hundreds of other businessmen who have similar credentials. Tons of those businessmen invest in oil and gas and other commodities and think they are going to continue to be strong industries with strong resource bases, rising demand and minimal environmental concerns; others don't invest in them because they expect availability to remain high.

Tons of these businessmen also invest in all sorts of other things besides oil and gas. People invest in healthcare, technology, retail, aerospace, and all sorts of other things, but it doesn't mean there's an impending shortage of any of those things. Even the people that you mention don't appear to explicitly believe that energy shortages are the most important thing to worry about or invest in: Bill Gates has invested in tons of projects and supports plenty of initiatives besides nuclear power. Wiblin isn't saying that energy is unimportant, he's saying that it's not the most important issue, and Gates hasn't demonstrated prioritization of energy over the disjunction of other issues. As for Musk, saying "SpaceX isn't directly about resource production but it's about spending a lot less resources for going to space" means nothing - it's like saying that Walmart is trying to save resources because they're about spending a lot less resources for delivering manufactured products to consumers.

Again, sure these people are smart. But they're not geniuses, and they screw up too, and of course they have little directly relevant formal education and no research experience pertaining to these issues. Just because they want to do good in the world (who doesn't?) and EA-ish doesn't mean they're right about everything. It doesn't qualify them to be better authorities than a typical researcher in the field.