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A Happier World just published a video on "Taking action" with regards to the long-term future, broadly summarizing the chapter from Will MacAskill's book What We Owe The Future. It's the final video in our What We Owe The Future series. Now it's time to focus on different topics :)

Thanks to Sarah Emminghaus for helping write the script!


Sources are marked with an asterisk. Text might differ slightly in wording from the final video.

Imagine you're a medieval person...

Imagine that you are a highly educated person living in the Middle Ages and you have to make decisions about our time. This seems rather difficult. We’re in a similar situation now regarding our future: there’s just a lot we don’t know. So what can we do to make sure the longterm future goes as smoothly as possible?

Exploring an uncharted jungle

In his book, Will considers that planning for the future is a lot like planning a trip through an uncharted jungle. Without knowing what's out there, there are still tools we could take with us that will give us the best chance of survival: such as a swiss army knife, matches, and first aid. For the long-term future, one such tool could be promoting free speech to help us prevent locking in dangerous values. We talk more about value lock-in in this video.

Second, we should keep the maximum number of options open to us. In a jungle, this would mean choosing the routes that leave open as many possible paths as possible. For the future this could mean shutting down coal plants as quickly as possible. Not just for climate change reasons, but also in case civilization collapses.

Thirdly, we should keep on learning about what’s ahead of us. This might mean climbing up a hill to get a better view of the terrain in the jungle. Or modelling possible climate scenarios.

Lastly, we have to prioritise. Not all problems are as important. Focus on the lion chasing you rather than the leaky tent. Focus on preventing the end of humanity rather than, I don't know, inventing smart windows or something.

A framework

So how do we prioritise? There are three questions you should ask:

First, what difference can I make? How many lives will I save? What amount of suffering will I alleviate? How much happiness will I bring? How significant will my actions be?

Second, how long will the effects of my actions last? A 100 years, 1000’s of years, longer? How long will the effects persist?

Thirdly, what would happen if I didn’t take these actions? Would someone else do them instead? If you believe someone else would do it later, how much later would that happen? How contingent are my actions? This matters because if someone else is going to do the same thing as you anyway, it's better to focus on something else.

These questions are part of Will’s proposed Significance, Persistence, Contingency framework.

We also just want to add that humans are far from the only species on this planet. There are a lot of wild and farmed animals that have real, ethical importance. If we’re going to take actions to improve the future, we shouldn’t forget about them.

What you can do

Now what are specific things you could do?

One way to help is to become politically active and advocate for sensible policies. If you want to have an even bigger impact, you can work for an organisation that tries to positively impact our long-term future. You could become a researcher or help out with marketing, communications, operations and more. For open positions check out the 80.000 hours job board! They list jobs at various organisations where you can have a big impact. Even more resources will be in the description of this video.

Book review time!

This is the final video of the series on Will MacAskill’s book, so I thought I'd share some of my opinions on it. Overall, I liked the book and how well researched it is. The book tries to make the case for the philosophy called longtermism, which states that 1) Future people matter, 2) trillions of lives may lie ahead of us, and 3) we can have a positive impact on <qthem. I agree with this, but overall, I think the most obvious way we can have a positive impact on the long-term future is by working to prevent human extinction threats like pandemics and artificial intelligence. But we don't even really need to bring in trillions of potential future people to make a case for that. These extinction risks are scary even for people alive today. Though I do admit longtermism makes the case for it stronger. I personally prefer The Precipice by Toby Ord as a book, as it just focuses on preventing existential threats and it gives multiple reasons for caring about it, not just longtermist ones. We covered this book in a previous video and I suggest you check it out.

I've mostly just summarised parts of What We Owe The Future on my channel. But I’m not sure most things Will covers in the book, aside from preventing extinction, are things that we can meaningfully have an impact on. I would still rather work on solving global poverty and helping farmed animals than, say, preventing technological stagnation or value lock-in. It’s just more tractable. Vox journalist Kelsey Piper's shares similar thoughts in her interesting review of the book that I'll link in the comments.* I would love to hear your thoughts on this video series or the book there as well!

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