Tuesday, 15 October 2019

Can one person make a difference in tackling climate change?

Some slides from a talk I gave on effective approaches to climate change, LINK HERE. Thoughts are my own and not those of my employers, past or future. 


CLICK ON PICTURES TO SEE FULL-SIZE

Key points

Some activities, like switching off unused mobile phone chargers, are 100x less effective than others.

There are many excellent and high-impact charities which use an effective altruism framework of scale, neglectedness, and tractability, to drive results. 


This is only a small selection of charities - there are many other excellent organisations which may have a large but less clearly measurable impact. 


Regular donations to highly effective charities can achieve in excess of 10,000x the impact of individual choices. The best ways to mitigate climate change are through group and network effects, analysing points of high leverage.

It may also be that there are other more promising and pressing global problems, where donors could have a higher counterfactual impact. For more details, see 80,000 Hours and their accompanying podcast for more information.

High impact charity donation options:

Other potentially good organisations working on this issue:
[See presentation for introduction to population and climate change]

More reading:
  • Hewlett’s climate philanthropy strategy here
  • Does climate change deserve more attention within effective altruism? (by me) here 
  • Some other potential leveraged opportunities here

Wednesday, 9 October 2019

Six books from July to Sep 2019


Credit: The Map and the Territory, MIRI
Since my last book review, I read six books, or admittedly, one of them is a podcast episode rather than a book. Using audiobooks, it’s not been time-consuming at all. Total reading time: 35 hours in 3 months, or 25 minutes per day on average, often while travelling/ cooking/ tidying while listening.
  1. Ready Player One — Ernest Cline (Audiobook, 9 hours at 1.7x)
Set in a dystopian 2040 where everyone plays in a big multiplayer virtual reality, this gung-ho tale has the male teenage protagonist coming of age and taking on the big machine. He has to win a quest within this virtual world, using his knowledge of trivia and 1980s games.

Cline creates a big virtual world within the narrative, and it provided some escapism while I commuted on the tube. But it’s overrated as a book. The only female character is a one-dimensional gamer girl, awkwardly flirtatious and obviously obsessed with our male protagonist. A long section describes the protagonist’s high-tech VR gaming kit, in a fetishistic way that sounded more a petulant child’s Christmas list, than anything relevant to the narrative.

Our hero takes on a nasty capitalist company also seeking to win the prize, and wins against the odds. Cline makes a worn-out criticism of suits; only in it for the money, unlike the real fans. After hours of reading, the message we get is that you shouldn’t spend too much time online. There’s no discussion of what politics might look like in the 2040s, and his narrative plays up to a nonsensical US vision of how one individual can change the whole system. Sorry Cline, take a lesson from more established democracies: progress comes through groups, sharing, and collaboration, not the trivia of a lone teenager.

I supposed I finished it because the story was easy, but really, Cline’s written a dated and clumsy fantasy of a finicky male geek, and the book deserves the bin rather than the spotlight.

Rating: 1/5

2. On the Future: Prospects for Humanity — Martin Rees (Audiobook, 4 hours at 1.2x)

Lord Martin Rees, 77, holds the grand title of UK Astronomer Royal, and has taken up a role as the public face of the Center for the Study of Existential Risk. Rees is fretful about the future, and his warnings and optimism in his clipped 1950s language are tender and earnest.

The book is a great broad introduction to what the future might hold. It pans across humanity’s myriad achievements in improving our lives, and prosperity. The future certainly offers challenges: climate change, inequality, and unintended technological consequences. But overall, Martin Rees’ tone is upbeat about how we can use technology to make things better, and he brands himself ‘a technological optimist’.

If there’s a technological evangelist in your office who thinks that Apps can solve all of the world’s problems (I know several), then this book provides a good and balanced education about the double-edged sword of technology, and our uncertain future.

Our future needs science, and sensible zero-carbon policy with things like GM crops and nuclear energy to make it better, and it’s great to see academics engaging clearly and accessibly on topics like these.

Rating: 4/5

3. The AI Does Not Hate You: Superintelligence, Rationality, and the Race to Save the World — Tom Chivers (Audiobook, 5 hours at 1.5x)

Artificial intelligence is rapidly gaining public attention as businesses and governments use machine learning algorithms to adapt and improve their operations. Google, Netflix, and Spotify use masses of data and machine learning (ML) systems to sort through large volumes of data and tailor services to individuals, and AI is improving things like diabetic eye screening and early detection of breast cancer.

But over the long-run, how powerful could AI become? Tom Chivers speaks to some of the rationalist community thinking about this question. His book heavily parrots Superintelligence by Nick Bostrom, and Yudkowsky’s sequences (AI to Zombies is reviewed below). I found both of those fairly readable, but if you want an easier starting point, then it’s an accessible intro.

Rating: 3/5

4. Strangers Drowning : Voyages to the Brink of Moral Extremity — Larissa Macfarquhar (Kindle edition, 338 pages, 4 hours)

Macfarquhar is a New York Times journalist who has interviewed and researched the lives of people seeking to do the most good they possibly can. It is a deeply touching book, listening to their stories, and how these often remote individuals felt a overwhelming desire to help others.

We learn about a monk with a gift for helping the suicidal, an environmentalist who decides to give his money away and live on the street, a doctor who single-handedly sets up a leper colony, and several others. The book has many intense stories: abuse, death, and things which push humans to and beyond their limits, so be warned for a challenging read.

As I read through Strangers Drowning, I made about 30 annotations on my Kindle — so much of it rang true to me. Having read more of people like Peter Singer, and hung out with the effective altruism crowd, I’ve thought more about the injustice of global inequality, the outrage of factory farming, the climate emergency, and other global problems. There is always more to do. And a life of rolexes and sports cars just doesn’t seem right given the world outside.

Macfarquhar’s take is profoundly moving, and I was in tears and joy as I read these stories of other individuals, tenderly working in their own way, and trying to live up to their own demanding expectations. Her stories include successes and failures, and lessons about how the most effective people were those who patient, strategic, and who looked after themselves. (Take note fellow activists.)

Rating: 5/5 (my top book of 2019)

5. The Map and the Territory (Rationality: From AI to Zombies)—Eliezer Yudkowsky (Paperback, 231 pages, ~5 hours)

Eliezer Yudkowsky is at the centre of the rationalist community, writing and thinking about artificial intelligence and human reasoning from before 2007. He is cited in Nick Bostrom’s Superintelligence, and his reasoning and books are popular among AI researchers. Although better-than AI goes conceptually back to at least I. J. Good in 1966.

The Map and the Territory is the first book from his 2400-page magnum opus, Rationality: From AI to Zombies. The whole text surveys evolutionary biology, psychology, the philosophy of language, and quantum physics, among many others. The first book reminded me of Thinking Fast and Slow, a more popular book going through Kahneman and Tsversky’s work on biases in economic decision-making. Yudkowsky’s book is written in a breezier tone, the bite-size chapters of 2–7 pages whip through a sequence of ideas much quicker than TFaS.

I found The Map and the Territory engrossing. It is clear to me that my own brain thinks consistently incorrectly. As individuals (and societies) we assemble these mental models (rules, stories, myths) about how the world works, but often the models are wrong. And if the model is wrong, then you’re not going to be able to navigate through the world and achieve the outcomes you want. So sharpening up the correspondence between your mental map and reality is worthwhile task. And this the goal throughout the series: passing through the availability heuristic, belief as social attire, and evidence and updating of our beliefs.

I certainly raise an eyebrow at Yudkowsky, an autodidact, who writes at times with an extremely condescending tone and who makes some unusual claims. But I thought this book was more original and coherent than Ready Player One and The AI Does Not Hate You, which both have garnered wide acclaim, despite being quite mediocre.

I think Yudkowsky can say some unwise things, and that his writing would benefit from professional editing, but his thinking is moreish and I plan to read more of the sequences. The individual chapters from the book and full series are also available here if you wanted to dip your toe in.

Rating: 3/5

(Note: I tried the audiobook and hated the smugness of the narrator, plus found listening to it hard to follow. I fancied a paper copy that I could reread slowly, highlight and make notes on).

6. The Climate Crisis as an Existential Threat with Simon Beard and Haydn Bellfield — Future of Life Institute (Podcast, 1 hour, listened to twice at 1x)

Lots of politicians are describing climate change as an existential threat. Extinction Rebellion seem to be concerned that climate change and an ecological breakdown will lead to human extinction. But will it actually?

The answer is that scientists don’t know. Climate change is complicated, and while we know all we need to know to drastically reduce emissions to net zero, we have a limited understanding of feedback and cascading effects of climate change. If we can model and research those, then we can start to develop strategies (e.g. around conservation, water management). If it turns out that >5C of warming would be catastrophic on a level not previously captured in our models, then a strong evidence base could help push hard for global governance of climate on climate change.

There’s some bad science out there, for example Jem Bendall’s unpublishable Deep Adaption blogpost, and a need for researchers to actually work out what plausible scenarios there are. Simon Beard and Haydn Bellfield of CSER (mentioned above in On the Future) discuss these points in a great interview.

Books I tried and actively decided not to continue:
  • This is Not a Drill by Extinction Rebellion — patchily written, aggressive, unscientific, and without policy direction.
  • Algorithms to Live by Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths — just felt very dry, and I wasn’t in the mood. Maybe I’ll come back to it another day.
Other books I’m interested in reading
  • Margaret Atwood—Handmaid's Tale
  • States and Markets — Susan Strange
  • The Age of Surveillance Capitalism—Shoshana Zuboff
  • Island—Aldous Huxley
  • Open to recommendations!

Monday, 7 October 2019

How meditation helps me as a social activist



Mugla, Turkey (2016)

Epistemic status

I have some sense of what worked for me, and this may or may not help you. Some claims about meditation are overblown, but I won’t critique any specific claims here, and my approach is secular and broadly rationalist.

Summary

In 2018, I started meditating 10 minutes per day. Since then, I’ve kept a daily practice, and read a little around the area. Here are some of the things I’ve found. Meditation helps me:
  1. Feel more calm and less stressed, giving me more energy
  2. Focus and prioritize
  3. Challenge established ways of thinking
  4. Be more empathetic and resilient
I will talk about these areas, then wrap up with some closing comments and with some resources I’ve found helpful.


1. Feeling more calm

The most important thing I realised was that the deepest source of my suffering is in the patterns of my own mind.
Yuval Noah Harari, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century
In the first few months of 2018, I felt stressed and drained. While my life was comfortable, I went through an online rabbit hole learning about plastic pollution, factory farming, and the severity of climate change.

In particular, learning about the factory farming of rabbits, I remember just sitting there and crying. I was irritable and distant, and probably experiencing secondary traumatic stress.
When I started having deliberate time away from my computer, I could avoid being sucked into a black hole. But I find that I can easily ruminate during a walk for example. Because I become aware of my rumination and distraction itself during meditation, it gives me a unique ability to stand back from the swirl.

I realised how curled-up my body was, and sitting upright on a mat, I pulled in deeper breaths and felt more settled. I sat up straighter and felt better immediately after each session. Mindfulness is recommended by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) as a way to prevent recurrence of depression, and it can function as a good mood booster.

Being more calm and less stressed just straight-up improved my own life one heck of a heap, and also gave me more energy and strength.


2. Focusing and prioritising

As humans I think we are evolved to deal with small and local problems, and results from psychology show that we struggle to grapple with a sprawling world. Many of the world’s most pressing problems, such as climate change, are complicated, global in nature, and open hard problems.

This means that if I spend unfocused time thinking about how to solve them, then much like a computer running through a loop and overheating, I’ll burn out my CPU. There are too many problems and we need to focus and prioritise in order to make progress. Meditation helps me open up my own internal task manager and identify the programs making everything else stutter and lag.

Part of how I try to help is through my donations, and also through my work on environmental and animal welfare activism. But there’s always more to do — the thoughts recur. If I can close them down at the end of the day, everything else runs smoother.


3. Challenging pre-existing ways of thinking

…to learn the difference between fiction and reality, what is real and what are just stories that we invent and construct in our own minds. Most people… just get overwhelmed by the religious stories, by the nationalist stories… [and] they take these stories to be the reality.
Yuval Noah Harari, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century
When I spent a month not drinking alcohol, I was struck by how seductive and poisonous heavy-drinking culture is. Just because some things are traditional, historical, normal, does not mean they’re right. Some repeated shared stories can bring us together, but often cultural myths push us further apart.

For example, in my early days as an animal welfare activist, I felt that I’d make progress by making lots of moral and emotional arguments to other people myself. It played into a story of one moral person against an immoral world, but this story was out of kilter with reality. But as I came across people like Tobias Leeanert, and thought about how fickle our own psychology can be, and how institutional change offers huge opportunities to make things better.

On an individual level, I find myself brooding on particular thoughts, and replaying old conversations over and over. I think of past or future arguments and replay my own position, digging myself in further and further. And so it swirls.
What we contact we feel
What we feel we perceive
What we perceive we think about
What we think about we proliferate about
What we proliferate about we dwell upon
What we dwell upon becomes the shape of our mind
The shape of our mind becomes the shape of our world
Christina Feldman, Breaking the Chain of Reactivity (Reflections 2)
But this doesn’t help me as an activist. And in order to have a high social impact, it might mean thinking carefully about counter-intuitive ideas. For example, the double-crux method for resolving disagreement requires identifying your thought processes and belief structures.

And, the more complicated the system you’re trying to influence is, the more important it is to appreciate the complexity. For example, making progress on climate change requires navigating a highly complex interaction between emissions, weather, the global food and energy system, and our geopolitical institutions.
In complex systems there’s so much going on that you can’t expect to know it all yourself. As a rule of thumb, the more complex the system the more useful networks and connections with others are.
AdamB, EA Forum post
I find that meditation offers me the ability to stand back from my own thinking, challenging my own narratives and ruminations. Looking not only at the world through my lens, but looking at the lens itself.

It helps me try to appreciate the wider context of my actions, and play using the whole board. I stopped fruitlessly replaying conversations and arguments I’d had in my own head, and instead considered more deeply the other person’s point of view, which helped me build relationships with people and think more holistically about social change.


4. Being more empathetic and resilient

But I think there’s a type of sensitivity — a kind of emotional responsiveness — that is totally compatible with a certain kind of resilience — the ability to feel things but not be overwhelmed or controlled by them.
I realised this is probably part of why I like meditation so much, because it’s essentially teaching you to be both more sensitive (to be more mindful of your experiences) and more resilient (to not get caught up in or resist what you’re feeling.)
Jess Whittlestone, Sensitivity and Resilience
When I’m lost in thought, then I don’t taste my food, and I’m not aware of my posture. We spend so many hours a day looking at screens. How are you sitting while reading this? I’ve been slouching and now I’m moving to sit up.

When I directly focus on experience, I really savour them: dark roast coffee, a simple bowl of pasta, cold water in a swimming pool. I pay close attention to people’s faces, and I think about their joy and sorrow. I gaze at pets on the street, and wonder what life is like for them.

What is it like to be a chihuahua on the tube? I too have suffered thirst and fear. I wince when I see a dog being harshly yanked on a leash. Is their pain not the same as our pain? And at the end of the day, when I am joyfully wrapped up in a duvet, I wonder how cats feel, nestled in their own furry blanket.

When I meditate regularly, I feel more connected and grounded to both suffering and joy. And energised by the experience. Part of the game.


Conclusions

My practice is not a middle class stress reduction technique. Our world urgently needs social and political reform. The indignity of the status quo in our contemporary lives and politics is unacceptable. We must make a better world.

Every day I feel the pull of all these things I care about, tugging at my heart strings. It’s such a blow to see how dry the fields are, and I have to turn away when I walk past shops with rotating chicken carcasses in the window. The feelings are still very much there.

But I find that meditation helps me keep my head above water. It helps me develop a clearer picture of the world, and in contemplation, I clasp hands with the things and beings that matter.

I am happier and healthier as a result. But meditation is not a panacea — exercise, my family, community, purpose, and fun are cornerstones in my own well-being.

I find meditation extremely hard. It is easier to watch television. Like an athlete stepping into the weights room — I sit on the mat with the clear purpose of making myself stronger, and working towards a better future.


My practice

I’ve tried a few routines, and what works for me is to try to meditate for an average of 10 minutes each day. If I can’t do one day, I’ll do 20 or 30 minutes when I do get a chance.

In general, I try to do the mornings. That can be a good way to set up for the day. But often, especially if I’ve had a busy day or week, it’s nice to do a longer evening session to process and unpack everything that’s been going on. If I’ve got a quiet weekend, I might do a 45 minute session.


Getting started

My favourite meditation is this: sit comfortably, breathing in and out, and quietly counting one to mark each breath. Breathe in, breathe out, one. Breathe in, breathe out, two, and so on. Noticing the breath closely — either at the tip of my nose, or in the rising and falling of my chest. When I get to ten (if I haven’t drifted off already), I restart at one. You can set a timer for ten minutes, or however long you like.

Often I drift off into all sorts of channels of thought. If I’m particularly distracted, and have missed a few days, then I’m drifting off maybe 60% of the time during a practice. By the end I’m converging more on being focused.

And if I keep it up the next day, then it’s more like 50% distraction/focus, and 40% distraction/60% focus the following day. The most I’ve had over about two years is about 80% focus. The impacts above are from iterative practice that steadily builds. My longest session has been an hour.


Next steps

  • There’s a more detailed guide here
  • I used this app, which I would highly recommend. I loved most of the lessons (though I’m not a fan of many of his comments in his podcast, and the cross-selling of his book is getting annoying. Overall I would still recommend the app though)
  • I’ve done full day sessions here
  • The Boundless Heart by Christina Feldman

Friday, 4 October 2019

Some quick thoughts on CSR

I've been involved in several sustainability initiatives, but people often ask whether they really make a difference. In this article I'm going to think about them from the perspective of effective altruism, which is about using reason and evidence to do the most good.

Summary 

  • There are lots of different ways organisations impact the environment
  • Some ways to make a difference matter much more than others
  • The best things make more than 1000x the difference of the least effective things
  • The highest impacts are from global policy change and technological innovation
  • Prioritise, prioritise, prioritise, and look after yourself

What makes a difference?

Like lots of other people, I started by thinking about small consumer things in like coffee cups and plastic straws. But I found that cutting out plastic or reducing landfill is not necessarily the best thing to do. For example, there was a review of the impact of different shopping bags done by the UK Environment agency (link here) with some interesting conclusions.
The environmental impact of all types of carrier bag is dominated by resource use and production stages. 
Cotton bags should be reused at least 131 times to ensure that they have lower global warming potential than conventional carrier bags that are not reused. 
Another popular movement is about people who are opting for reusable straws. But if we want to clean up the ocean, straws are far from the main driver. A study published in the journal Science found that plastic straws make up about 0.025% of all ocean waste, and another study found that 46% of the ocean waste was from discarded fishing equipment. 

Prioritisation

Corporate social responsibility is often more about marketing than it is about driving an impact. Virgin Atlantic offer 'sustainable' bamboo travel kits. I suspect bamboo toothbrushes are more harmful for the environment than plastic ones, and this draws attention away from the huge environmental impact of flying. This is greenwashing; when an organisation looks like they're doing something sustainable, but in fact it's papering over what matters.

David MacKay was a professor of physics at Cambridge, and head of the Department for Energy and Climate Change, wrote an excellent book called Sustainable Energy without the Hot Air. 
If everyone does a little, we’ll achieve only a little. We must do a lot. What’s required are big changes in demand and in supply.
He gave the example of a news article telling people to switch their mobile phones chargers off when not being used in order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. He made the point that mobile phone chargers use less than 0.25% of a house's energy consumption. He made the full text of his book available here.

Choose 2-3 of these:


High Impact
  • Offsetting —I have no problem with offsetting at all, as if we can find good ways to stop carbon from entering the atmosphere, and fund those opportunities, then this is a net gain overall. 
  • Travel —encouraging staff to take the train rather than driving or flying is quick win, as trains create less than 10% the emissions of planes
  • Supply Chain — this might be one of your biggest opportunities. It's worth asking suppliers about their life-cycle analysis and how their products are made. 
  • Office energy provider— you can get zero-carbon energy providers, e.g. Ovo, Bulb, Ecotricity, and this can be a really quick way to make a difference.  

Medium Impact
  • Buildings 
  • Divestment of pensions and other financial investments
  • Increasing vegetarian food options
Anyone can set a target

I've come across several organisations that have been under pressure around climate change and sustainability, and so they've set a target (e.g. reduce greenhouse gas by 20% by 2050) which is both unambitious, and often they've barely achieved any reduction at all. One telecoms provider only achieved a 1% saving in the last 5 years. So make sure that targets and metrics actually bite.


Global problems require global solutions


It's really important to consider the overall impact of each choice, and be open to surprising or systemic conclusions like providing more vegetarian options or advocating for industry-wide policies to lower emissions. These offer the opportunities to make the biggest difference of all. 

I've compared the options I showed earlier on with how incredibly effective these charities are. Even a £10 donation per month is fairly small - and this has over 1,000x the impact of low-energy lightbulbs! 

In 2019, the charity evaluator Founders Pledge came up with two recommendations for points of particularly high impact:
  • The Coalition for Rainforest Nations - This nonprofit works on avoiding deforestation by partnering with governments and businesses. 
  • The Clean Air Task Force - This nonprofit works in the US and helps scale up zero-carbon energy systems, plus work on tightening federal and state environmental regulation 
They accept funding for donations, and so even small donations from individuals or charities to companies can drive outstanding results.

Making it happen

Working on sustainability is an infinite task. Because we can't do everything, we need to choose only a few things, and those should be the things that make the biggest difference. 

Groups solve collective action problems. And you can't take all of this on yourself. Creating a group can be a great way to get support from other people passionate about sustainability, and share out the workload. 

A final note

Thinking about and working on climate change and sustainability is hard. What matters is the difference you make, not how burnt out you are. Welcome to the club, and good luck!


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In a 2017 paper in Environmental Research Letters , the authors compare popular advice around reducing individual contributions to climate ...