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: 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: 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: 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: 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.

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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... Read More