Dec 14, 2016
On this forum, I have referred several times to a paper showing striking cost-effectiveness of getting prepared for global agricultural catastrophes. It is now published here. I acknowledge several EAs who reviewed the paper. The abstract is below; we also analyze return on investment and find extremely high values. We do not quantitatively compare to the effectiveness of working on other global catastrophic risks, but because this is such a leveraged opportunity, it is likely to compare favorably. The number of expected lives lost per day delay of getting prepared is what convinced me to give significant fraction of my own money to the effort.
I am interested in your feedback on the assumptions, and also how to communicate the cost-effectiveness to EAs and the general public. The charity we are starting would not only do the direct work to get prepared, but it would also hopefully motivate additional funding. This should be even more cost-effective than the direct interventions, but I would probably be conservative and ignore that. For most audiences, I would also be conservative and ignore far future benefits. Another source of conservatism is that our budget will be small compared to the tens of millions of dollars required to do significant preparation, so we can choose the most cost-effective activities. Much of the preparations for ~10% global agricultural shortfalls would be valuable to prepare for ~100% global agricultural shortfalls (large comet/asteroid, super volcanic eruption, and nuclear winter). Ignoring these benefits is another source of conservatism. There also sources of conservatism that affect overall cost-effectiveness, but not cost per life saved, including preserving biodiversity. We also ignore the reduction of the cost of food during the catastrophe for the people who would have survived anyway. Preliminary calculations indicate that this would make the cost to developed countries (assumed to be the donors) of getting prepared net negative, meaning net negative cost to save expected lives. But I have not yet written that paper, so let's return to the conclusions of the published paper.
The general public typically does not do very well with uncertainty, so I was thinking of using the median value of $10 to save an expected life. I think the media would fixate on the lower bound of saving expected lives for $.30 apiece. Might this be ok because of the large conservatism above?
The literature suggests there is about a 1 % risk per year of a 10 % global agricultural shortfall due to catastrophes such as a large volcanic eruption, a medium asteroid or comet impact, regional nuclear war, abrupt climate change, and extreme weather causing multiple breadbasket failures. This shortfall has an expected mortality of about 500 million people. To prevent such mass starvation, alternate foods can be deployed that utilize stored biomass. This study developed a model with literature values for variables and, where no values existed, used large error bounds to recognize uncertainty. Then Monte Carlo analysis was performed on three interventions: planning, research, and development. The results show that even the upper bound of USD 400 per life saved by these interventions is far lower than what is typically paid to save a life in a less-developed country. Furthermore, every day of delay on the implementation of these interventions costs 100–40,000 expected lives (number of lives saved multiplied by the probability that alternate foods would be required). These interventions plus training would save 1–300 million expected lives. In general, these solutions would reduce the possibility of civilization collapse, could assist in providing food outside of catastrophic situations, and would result in billions of dollars per year of return.