Effective Altruism and Everyday Decisions

post by Jeff_Kaufman · 2019-09-16T19:39:59.370Z · score: 74 (32 votes) · EA · GW · 10 comments
Ask for your drink without a straw.
Unplug your microwave when not in use.
Bring a water bottle to events.
Stop using air conditioning.
Choose products that minimize packaging.

I've recently heard people advocate for all of these, generally in the form of "here are small things you can be doing to help the planet." In the EA Facebook group someone asked why we haven't tried to make estimates so we can prioritize among these. Is it more important to reuse containers, or to buy locally made soap?

I think the main reason we haven't put a lot of work into quantifying the impacts of these everyday choices is that they're minor compared to questions like "what should I work on?", "if I'm donating where should the money go?", "how can we figure out the impact of our choices at all reliably?" etc. Quantification, even at a very rough level, is really hard and so we should focus on the most important questions first.

A second reason, however, is that these sorts of activities are often shockingly poor tradeoffs. Perhaps you give up AC to save electricity, but then you get less done during the day, sleep poorly at night, and only save $3/day in electricity and ~$0.75/day in CO2 [1] Or you buy zero-waste laundry paste which you dilute at home, putting money and effort into avoiding a very small amount of plastic packaging. Or you take cold showers and enjoy them dramatically less while slightly reducing your use of heating fuel. Advocacy often explicitly or implicitly treats actions as free, while a full evaluation needs to also consider the cost to yourself.

I'm not saying our personal choices don't matter and that we should give up, but a small number of our choices matter far more than others, and we should put our efforts there.

(Previously: 2015, 2013, 2012.)

[1] This is figuring 600W average usage for a window unit, which is 14.4kWh/day. Our marginal cost for power is $0.21/kWh, on the high side nationally, so $3/day. Figuring 1T CO2 per kWh, this is ~0.007T CO2/day. Using the same 95th percentile EPA social cost estimate I used in this post, $105/T, that's $0.76/day. These are very rough numbers, but they're enough to see that the costs are low.

10 comments

Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by Robert_Wiblin · 2019-09-16T21:15:52.425Z · score: 24 (15 votes) · EA · GW

The amount of electricity consumed by some appliances these days is astonishingly low.

The LED lightbulb in my room for example uses 9 Watts. If I left it on maximum brightness constantly for a whole year this would come to:

9 Watts * 24 hours per day * 365 days / 1000 = ~79kWh.

That would cost me 79kWh * 14.714p/kWh = £12 in electricity for the year.

If supplied 100% by especially dirty coal this might produce 71kg of CO2.

This is a small amount which could be offset on the EU carbon trading market for about £1.80.

While also not worth fussing much too about, at least heating systems and air conditioners do use a meaningful amount of energy! Get your house insulated and then don't sweat about the rest.

comment by elle · 2019-09-19T18:48:18.629Z · score: 18 (12 votes) · EA · GW

I broadly agree with this article, but some part of me felt... uncomfortable?... with the topic. So I tried to give voice to that part of me. Very uncertain about this, and it is a bit confusing.

--

I think we often build up pictures/stories of ourselves based on our regular habits/ actions. If I exercise every day, I start to think of myself as athletic/ healthy/ strong. If I wipe the counters in the kitchen, it contributes to my sense of responsibility/ care-taking/ cleanliness. If I do X that I believe is wasteful (i.e. common opinion says that X is wasteful and I have not seen any analyses that disprove the common opinion), I think of myself as a more selfish/ wasteful/ immoral person.

It seems easier for people to build up stories around actions that are direct/ concrete/ tangible/ etc. For example, I hear there are GiveWell employees who feel like their work is so removed from outcomes that it is difficult to feel motivated. Even though GiveWell does much more "direct work" than most of us will ever do! I think actions we feel are present/ close/ non-abstract/ non-alienating/ etc. may influence our self-identity significantly.

Negative self-images, if they get too strong, can be debilitating. At the very least, they are not fun. Often, to avoid negative self-image, we develop stories about why it's "OK" to be wasteful, even if we would not want everyone else to be. Stories such as "my time is super valuable."

Stories matter. If you attain a position of power, they influence what actions you take with that power. And stories interact and compound. For example, my feeling guilty about being wasteful can lead to a reinforcement of the belief that my time is valuable. Believing that my time is really valuable can lead to me making more wasteful decisions. Decisions like: "It is totally fine for me to buy all these expensive ergonomic keyboards simultaneously on Amazon and try them out, then throw away whichever ones do not work for me." Or "I will buy this expensive exercise equipment on a whim to test out. Even if I only use it once and end up trashing it a year later, it does not matter."

The thinking in the examples above worries me. People are bad at reasoning about when to make exceptions to rules like "try to behave in non-wasteful ways", especially when the exception is personally beneficial. And I think each exception can weaken your broader narrative about what you value and who you are.

I think I want people to default towards the common-sense, non-wasteful actions (as long as the cost feels pretty low to them), until they have read or made a well-reasoned case that the action is not wasteful in the way common opinion indicates (e.g., I liked Rob's article that complicates our narrative around recycling: https://medium.com/@robertwiblin/what-you-think-about-landfill-and-recycling-is-probably-totally-wrong-3a6cf57049ce). I suspect that this approach will lead to a reinforcement of narratives/ values that seem good to me.

comment by Raemon · 2019-09-20T20:56:18.517Z · score: 11 (6 votes) · EA · GW
Believing that my time is really valuable can lead to me making more wasteful decisions. Decisions like: "It is totally fine for me to buy all these expensive ergonomic keyboards simultaneously on Amazon and try them out, then throw away whichever ones do not work for me." Or "I will buy this expensive exercise equipment on a whim to test out. Even if I only use it once and end up trashing it a year later, it does not matter."
...
The thinking in the examples above worries me. People are bad at reasoning about when to make exceptions to rules like "try to behave in non-wasteful ways", especially when the exception is personally beneficial. And I think each exception can weaken your broader narrative about what you value and who you are.

I was brought up in a family that was very pro-don't-waste, and I've had an a lengthy shift towards "actually, 'not wasting'" just isn't very important. It's more of a carry-over from a time when a) humanity had a lot less ability to produce stuff, b) humanity had worse landfill technology than we have now."

Insofar as we do produce too much waste, it's mostly at a corporate/organizational level than something that makes sense for individuals to prioritize.

It's not that I think people should be making exceptions to rules like 'try to behave in non-wasteful ways', it's that I mostly now think that 'don't be wasteful' wasn't that useful a core-rule in the first place.

(Among my cruxes here are a belief that landfill technology has improved since the era when 'don't waste' and 'recycle' memes took off, as well as a shift towards 'thinking broadly about having a high impact is much more important than individual local decisions.'

Past me (and perhaps you) might be suspicious of the 'landfill technology is actually good enough that this isn't that big a deal', perhaps rightly so because it's a kinda suspiciously-convenient belief. I don't have arguments-at-the-ready that'd have convinced past me, so mostly just laying out my current reasoning without expecting it to be that persuasive at the moment)

comment by Khorton · 2019-09-21T03:51:39.723Z · score: 6 (4 votes) · EA · GW

I agree that everyday actions shape our self-perception. I don't believe this has to be all-or-nothing. I have a lot of friends who pride themselves on not being wasteful, but don't know how to sew and won't patch up old clothes. This habit of throwing out holey clothes doesn't stop them from eating the leftovers in their fridge or spending their money carefully.

There are a lot of small actions we can do to improve the world. Many of these will also reinforce our identities as caring and thoughtful people. In that sense, they're helpful and aspiring EAs should continue doing them.

However, I don't think EA as a community should promote these small actions, unless they're particularly cost-effective. I think prioritising a list of, say, 15 small actions counts as promoting them, because people might feel like they should adopt the top small actions, when actually I think people should just keep doing what they're doing and focus on big wins.

comment by SoerenMind · 2019-09-25T23:43:16.006Z · score: 9 (5 votes) · EA · GW

Like most commenters, I broadly agree with the empirical info here. It's sort of obvious, but telling others things like "don't go out of your way to use less plastic" or even just creating unnecessary waste in a social situation can be inconsiderate towards people's sensibilities. Of course, this post advocates no such thing but I want to be sure nobody goes away thinking these things are necessarily OK.

(I was recently reminded of a CEA research article about how considerateness is even more important than most people think, and EAs should be especially careful because their behavior reflects on the whole community.)

comment by Nathan Young (nathan) · 2019-09-25T09:41:53.261Z · score: 5 (4 votes) · EA · GW

I think this view is correct but I would think about how I expressed it.

If someone was sharing advice like this, they care about the future of humanity. Telling them they are making bad choices might put them off. Rather I would want to encourage them and suggest some of the highest impact interventions.

It's easy to come across as superior particularly to people who are trying to make the world better. This would be harmful.

comment by ishi · 2019-09-24T07:24:38.803Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · EA · GW

I can sort of relate to this, but its a very complex situation. I remember growing up in an opld house in need of repairs it was often decided 'we would to the work ourselves' rather than hire someone (ie save some money and that helped pay for my college education, some trips to the country, etc). But it would take us 3 days to fix something (eg electrical, plumbing, concrete, roofing) which an expert could do in 1/2 a day.

Also at times very small amounts of savings are a major difference. If you decide to spend more money on some electronic or musical device ( i'm somewhat into music so i often have to decide whether to try to fix what i have or buy something new) you then may not have busfare. So then since you have to walk you will get an 'adventure' --might have to go through some bad weather or dangerous areas.

(I have noticed many good quality modern electrical appliances are both cheap on energy use, and sturdy; but sometimes if you save a little money and get a lower quality one , they break in a short period so you need a new one).

In my spare time for entertainment i try to come up with simple mathematical formalisms ('fermi calculations') to handle these cost/benefit calculations , but i rapidly realize to really handle them you need something like tensor analyses or modern variants (category theory) since you dealing with so many variables.




comment by lucy.ea8 · 2019-09-20T03:05:21.393Z · score: 2 (6 votes) · EA · GW

How our societies are structured makes a huge difference. Europeans* have half the CO2 footprint as Americans. I assume they have roughly similar quality of life and happiness.

*I understand Europe is not a monolith, this is just rule of thumb thinking

comment by bdixon · 2019-09-24T14:42:46.848Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · EA · GW

You might find this book chapter interesting - 'Twenty-Seven Thoughts About Multiple Selves, Sustainable Consumption, and Human Evolution' by Geoffrey Miller.

comment by aarongertler · 2019-09-26T06:48:12.178Z · score: 10 (3 votes) · EA · GW

I think people would be more likely to read the chapter if you had another sentence or two on what it was about (this is a good rule of thumb for links on the Forum).